Credit: Will Ludwig/C&EN/Shutterstock | A globe with pins placed on China, Germany, India, Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and South Korea.
The world’s chemical industry didn’t just grow in 2021, it positively swelled.
According to C&EN’s latest Global Top 50 survey, the world’s 50 largest chemical companies, in aggregate, posted sales of $1.1 trillion in 2021, the fiscal year that forms the basis of the ranking. That’s a 38% increase over the combined total for the same 50 firms in 2020.
Profits more than kept up. Chemical operating income for the 41 firms that break out such numbers jumped 148% in 2021, hitting $127 billion.
There are two big reasons for the spike in chemical sales and earnings in 2021. First, the world’s economy sagged in 2020 on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. This downturn hit the chemical industry, albeit not as severely as it did industries like aerospace and automotive. The 50 firms that appeared a year ago in C&EN’s survey posted a 7% decline in sales. And they posted earnings declines for the second year in a row. With the world economy recovering in 2021, it stands to reason that chemical sales recovered as well.
Also related to the spike is inflation, the likes of which some countries around the world haven’t seen in decades. According to the Energy Information Administration, the US benchmark oil price rose from $47.07 per barrel in December 2020 to $71.69 a year later.
The chemical industry, most of which relies on oil as a raw material, responded by raising prices in kind. According to LyondellBasell Industries, US and European ethylene prices increased by 35% and 60%, respectively, in 2021, while polyethylene prices rose about 45%. Prices for ammonia more than doubled.
Thus, the healthiest sales increases seen in the Global Top 50 came from petrochemical companies. Sabic, Formosa Plastics, PetroChina, LyondellBasell Industries, and ExxonMobil Chemical all clocked in with sales increases of 40% or more. Also riding the crest of the commodity price wave are fertilizer makers such as Yara, Nutrien, and Mosaic, which posted astounding increases in sales.
A few companies in the 2021 ranking fell off in 2022 because they didn’t have enough sales to make the cut. These are the US petrochemical maker Westlake, the US agricultural chemical producer Corteva Agriscience, and the Japanese chemical makers Tosoh and DIC.
Joining the ranking for the first time is EuroChem Group, one of the fertilizer makers that got a lift from higher commodity prices. It debuts at number 44. Thailand’s PTT Global Chemical returns at 46 after a 1-year hiatus.
Two Chinese newcomers make the ranking: TongKun Group at 48 and Hengyi Petrochemical at 50. Both are polyester producers that make their own raw materials. Hengyi also has a large, integrated nylon 6 business. Both companies join similar Chinese firms, like Hengli Petrochemical and Rongsheng Petrochemical. All these companies have been building massive complexes for aromatics and derivatives, in many cases swamping entire segments of the chemical industry—such as purified terephthalic acid—with new capacity that is well beyond the scale of players outside China.
For the third consecutive year, BASF heads the Global Top 50. Because it has a home base in Germany, the company was strongly impacted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. BASF pledged in April to wind down operations in Russia and Belarus, which represent about 1% of its sales. The company says it will continue supplying agrochemicals to these countries to avoid disrupting the world’s delicate food supply chain. BASF has also been affected by the severe increase in European natural gas prices that the war has exacerbated. In March, BASF chairman Martin Brudermüller told a Houston audience at the IHS Markit World Petrochemical Conference that “European industry really has to rethink” its strategy, given its dependence on natural gas from Russia. The war has also affected the company’s Wintershall Dea energy joint venture, which has extensive operations in Russia. During the first quarter, BASF took a $1.2 billion write-off related to the cancellation of Nord Stream 2, a natural gas pipeline between Germany and Russia that Wintershall helped finance. BASF is also anticipating the coming energy transition. The company is carving out its emission catalyst business, which it acquired with its 2006 purchase of Engelhard. The move is a response to the dim outlook for internal combustion engine vehicles and could be a prelude to a sale. BASF has simultaneously been trying to grow as a producer of materials for electric vehicle batteries and aims to spend $5 billion on production capacity outside Europe.
Once again, the blue-chip Chinese firm Sinopec is the second-largest chemical company in the world. Sinopec is working on an enormous lineup of capital expansions in China. Last year in Zhenhai, it started up an ethylene cracker project and began work on a propane dehydrogenation plant that it hopes to finish in 2024. The firm is building a cracker and derivatives project in Tianjin that it expects to complete next year and is bringing another one to completion in Hainan this year. Sinopec is also constructing a massive purified terephthalic acid complex in Yizheng. Like many energy and chemical firms, Sinopec has gotten into the act of carbon abatement. In Zibo earlier this year, it started up a carbon-capture-and-storage project that will handle 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.
In 2020, Dow revealed its aspiration to reach carbon emission neutrality by 2050, and at an investor event in October, it detailed its plans to get there. The company aims to spend $1 billion per year, about a third of its capital budget, to decarbonize its petrochemical sites around the world one by one. Topping that list is Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, where in an industry first, the company will build a carbon-neutral ethylene cracker. An autothermal reformer will process the cracker’s off-gases to generate hydrogen that will be burned in the cracker’s furnaces instead of natural gas. Dow will capture the resulting carbon dioxide and inject it into Alberta’s CO2 pipeline for sequestration. Dow’s sustainability push extends beyond greenhouse gases and into plastic waste. At the October event, for example, the company said it would collaborate with Fuenix Ecogy to build a waste plastics pyrolysis plant in the Netherlands.
The Saudi giant Sabic has a large presence in Europe owing to its acquisition of petrochemical businesses from DSM and Huntsman more than a decade ago. And while the company gained a North American engineering polymer business in 2007 with the purchase of GE Plastics, a US toehold in petrochemicals has been more elusive. Sabic finally accomplished this long-term objective in January when its $10 billion joint venture with ExxonMobil Chemical, Gulf Coast Growth Ventures, started up near Corpus Christi, Texas. The venture produces ethylene and the derivatives polyethylene and ethylene glycol. The project is noteworthy because of how quickly it was erected: in just over 2 years. Some recent US petrochemical projects have experienced delays longer than that.
Formosa Plastics’ proposed $9.4 billion petrochemical complex in St. James Parish, Louisiana, suffered a major setback last year when the US Army Corps of Engineers ordered a full environmental review. That process could take longer than 2 years, according to local activists. The massive project, which would include an ethylene cracker, polyethylene plants, and other facilities, was originally unveiled in 2015. While the complex would be an important diversification move for the Taiwan-based company, S&P Global Ratings noted in a report in October that Formosa’s management could be reaching the end of its patience for delays and local opposition. “We see diminishing probability that the planned mega project in Louisiana will go ahead, given the changing political atmosphere in the U.S.,” the credit rating agency wrote.
Since its inception in the 1990s, Ineos has expanded by acquiring established divisions of large chemical companies. Most recently, in early 2021, it bought BP’s aromatics business, a major producer of purified terephthalic acid, for $5 billion. Since then, Ineos has been focusing on sustainability. In September, it announced a $1.3 billion plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60% at its Grangemouth, Scotland, petrochemical complex by 2030. It will do so by capturing the greenhouse gas and sending it to the proposed Acorn CO2 system, which aims to inject it under the North Sea. In October, Ineos said it plans to spend $2.3 billion on green hydrogen projects. It will construct a 20 MW electrolyzer, powered by alternative energy, in Rafnes, Norway. And in Cologne, Germany, Ineos wants to build a 100 MW electrolyzer that will make hydrogen for green ammonia. Separately, Ineos is installing a unit in Cologne to extract acetonitrile made during acrylonitrile production. Acetonitrile is a solvent used in butadiene extraction and in high-performance liquid chromatography. Its use is acutely growing as a solvent in the production of oligonucleotides for RNA vaccines.
PetroChina heaped on the growth in 2021, expanding by 42% from 2020 as China’s economy recovered from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. New projects in China will only further the company’s expansion. This year, it is due to complete the $10 billion Guangdong Petrochemical project. The massive effort includes a refinery, an aromatics unit, and an ethylene cracker. PetroChina has also finished work on an ethylene project in Tarim that will use domestically produced ethane as its feedstock. In Jieyang, an enormous $1 billion acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene plant with 600,000 metric tons per year of capacity is in the works.
Some chemical companies have been ditching commodities to focus on specialties. LyondellBasell Industries is exiting refining so it can better home in on commodities. In April, the company said it would shutter its 100-year-old Houston refinery by the end of 2023. The refinery, part of LyondellBasell Industries since it spun off from Atlantic Richfield in 1989, has long been an issue for the company. It was a joint venture with the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA for more than a decade before Lyondell bought out its partner for $2.1 billion in 2006. Company officials say they may repurpose the property for sustainability projects such as a plastics pyrolysis plant. Meanwhile, LyondellBasell has been steadily growing its commodity chemical business. It bought 50% stakes in ethylene complexes in the US and China. And according to newly surfaced government documents, it is considering building a high-density polyethylene plant in Corpus Christi, Texas.
LG Chem has been laying down big money on sustainable polymer and battery material projects. Last August, the company announced plans to invest $2.3 billion through 2028 on sustainable material facilities in Seosan, South Korea. One of these units will make the compostable polymer poly(butylene adipate-co-terephthalate). With the agricultural giant ADM, LG aims to establish lactic acid and polylactic acid capacity in the US. And with the South Korean oil company GS Caltex, LG is planning large-scale fermentation of the acrylic acid raw material 3-hydroxypropionic acid. In battery materials, LG broke ground in January on a $420 million plant in Gumi, South Korea, that will make cathode materials for electric vehicle batteries. It is also spending $375 million to form a battery separator joint venture in Hungary with Japan’s Toray Industries.
Over the past year, ExxonMobil has been advancing sustainability initiatives. In March, it unveiled plans to build a blue hydrogen facility at its refining and petrochemical complex in Baytown, Texas. The project would capture 10 million metric tons (t) per year of carbon dioxide generated in the hydrogen production process, reducing the site’s carbon footprint by 30%. The project would connect to a massive carbon-capture-and-storage hub in the region that ExxonMobil is spearheading. Also in Baytown, the company is building a facility that will use new chemical technology to recycle waste plastics. It hopes to process 500,000 t of plastics annually around the world by 2026 and is also considering projects in Canada, the Netherlands, and Singapore.
Within a year of taking over the helm of Japan’s largest chemical maker, CEO Jean-Marc Gilson, a veteran of Dow Corning and Roquette, launched a major restructuring initiative. Mitsubishi Chemical Group plans to carve out its petrochemical and coal-based chemical businesses as a separate company and then exit them by the end of its 2023 fiscal year. The units, which make olefins, polyolefins, and other bulk petrochemicals, generate about 20% of the company’s sales. Mitsubishi Chemical Group wants to focus on more specialized areas, such as electronic materials and the life sciences.
The expansion program at this Chinese firm is a good illustration of just how massively and systematically the Chinese petrochemical industry has been growing in recent years. For example, Hengli Petrochemical plans to bring on line 5 million metric tons (t) per year of capacity for the polyester raw material purified terephthalic acid (PTA) later this year in Huizhou, China. The company is building a 450,000 t plant to make poly(butylene adipate-co-terephthalate) (PBAT), which will consume some of the PTA as a raw material. Hengli is building a 300,000 t adipic acid unit, also to help feed PBAT production. And it is working on a big polyester fiber expansion and recently opened a large ethylene cracker.
Like its industrial gas rivals Air Liquide and Air Products, Linde is focused on carbon reduction. In May, the German firm and BP announced that they would collaborate on a large carbon-capture-and-storage project on the Texas Gulf Coast. The firms aim to make blue hydrogen, produced by reforming natural gas and storing the by-product carbon dioxide. Linde will distribute this hydrogen to customers via its regional pipeline network. The firms aim to store some 15 million metric tons of CO2 annually in underground formations. In Austria, Linde is building a plant to make green hydrogen—derived from water electrolysis powered by renewable energy—for sale to the semiconductor maker Infineon Technologies. To help shore up helium supply, Linde is adding an extraction unit at a natural gas liquefaction plant in Texas. The project will increase the world’s supply of helium by more than 3%.
Late last year, the French industrial gas giant Air Liquide got into a business that is as high tech as a chemical business can get. It signed an agreement with the Canadian nuclear power operator Laurentis Energy Partners to buy helium-3, a light isotope of helium formed via the β decay of the heavy hydrogen isotope tritium. Air Liquide will market 5,000–10,000 L of the 3He annually. The isotope is needed for quantum computing, which must operate at temperatures as close to absolute zero as possible. Conventional liquid 4He cooling can get down to 1–4 K, and getting below that requires mixing in some 3He. Separately, Air Liquide is building what it calls the world’s largest biomethane plant, at a Chicago-area landfill. The industrial gas maker estimates that the collected methane could generate 380 GW h of energy annually. It is also building a methane recovery plant in Wisconsin.
The Chinese conglomerate ChemChina bought the Swiss agrochemical maker Syngenta in 2017 and later pursued a merger with another big Chinese industrial giant, Sinochem. Now Syngenta Group operates under the Sinochem umbrella. As it did when it was independent, Syngenta emphasizes technology. It is collaborating with Enko Chem, a start-up that applies drug discovery methods to agricultural applications. For instance, the partners will screen molecular libraries for compounds that act against specific enzymes in pests. They hope to halve the time to bring new molecules to market—which can now take a decade. Syngenta also recently bought two biopesticides from the Welsh firm Bionema. In the deal, it acquired nematodes that kill leatherjackets and a pathogenic fungus that kills vine weevils.
The Indian conglomerate has abandoned plans to put its refining and chemical operations—which it calls Oil to Chemicals—into a stand-alone business. It also walked away from negotiations with Saudi Aramco to sell a 20% stake in the business for $15 billion. Instead, Reliance Industries is undertaking what may turn out to be an even bigger change in direction. Last year, it announced an ambitious goal to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2035. Reliance is setting aside 2,000 hectares of land at its massive Jamnagar refinery and petrochemical complex for factories that would make photovoltaic modules, batteries, electrolyzers, and fuel cells. Along these lines, Reliance bought Faradion, a British sodium-ion battery start-up, for $135 million. It will spend another $35 million to bring the new battery chemistry to market. It also purchased the Norwegian solar cell maker REC Group for $771 million.
The Chinese polyurethane and petrochemical maker has been rocketing up the Global Top 50 because of its prodigious growth in recent years. And 2021 was another enormous year for Wanhua Chemical—its revenues nearly doubled from 2020. Ambitious capital expansion projects have helped fuel the growth. In Yantai, China, it opened an ethylene cracker and derivatives plants and revamped methylene diphenyl diisocyanate production. In April, the company announced it would spend $3.6 billion to build a chemical complex in Penglai, China. The project, to be completed in 2024, will feature a propane dehydrogenation unit as well as downstream plants for polypropylene, propylene oxide, and other chemicals. The company also started producing cathode materials and the biodegradable polymer poly(butylene adipate-co-terephthalate).
It is possible that Braskem could change hands in the near future. Novonor, the Brazilian conglomerate formerly known as Odebrecht, is facing hefty fines because of a Brazilian corruption scandal. The US Department of Justice alone is demanding $2.6 billion from the company. As a consequence, Novonor has been looking to sell its 38% interest in Braskem, which includes control of more than 50% of Braskem’s common stock. Sale talks are nothing new for Braskem. The company discussed a sale to LyondellBasell Industries in 2018 and 2019, but nothing came of the negotiations. In 2020, Novonor and Braskem’s other major shareholder, the Brazilian state oil company Petrobras, planned to float Braskem shares on public markets. That plan was shelved earlier this year because of financial market volatility. And in April, the private equity firm Apollo Capital was rumored to be bidding for Novonor’s stake.
The Japanese chemical maker Sumitomo Chemical is undertaking a round of downsizing. It will close its caprolactam plant in Ehime, Japan, by October, ending production of the nylon 6 raw material after more than 50 years because of difficulties staying competitive against new production in China. Indeed, Chinese chemical makers have been growing prodigiously in a number of aromatic chemicals, an alarming trend for incumbents in these businesses. Sumitomo is also closing its dyestuff plant in Osaka, Japan, after more than 70 years in business. Sumitomo is finding areas with brighter futures to invest in. It is building semiconductor chemical and liquid-crystal polymer plants in Ehime and adding photoresist capacity in Japan and South Korea.
Shin-Etsu Chemical is coming off of a prosperous year. The company saw its revenues jump by 39% and its profits swell by 72%. A bright spot was its polyvinyl chloride business, which saw profits triple. Also, Shin-Etsu’s semiconductor material business has been trying to ship as much product as it can to help address a worldwide chip shortage. In an expansion move, Shin-Etsu will spend close to $700 million to raise output of silicone fluids, resins, and rubber at three plants in Japan.
The polyurethane specialist Covestro unveiled a plan late last year to cut up to 1,700 jobs—about 10% of its workforce—by the end of 2023. Most of the cuts will be in Germany. At the same time, the company is resuscitating a plan to build a world-scale methylene diphenyl diisocyanate plant by 2026. While the previous plan pinpointed Texas as the site of the complex, Covestro now says it may build it in either the US or China. The company is also increasing capacity for another polyurethane raw material, toluene diisocyanate, in Dormagen, Germany. And with the biotechnology firm Genomatica, Covestro plans to make biobased hexamethylenediamine, used in the manufacture of polyurethanes and nylon 6,6.
The past year has seen a number of sustainable business initiatives at Toray Industries. The company has launched nylon 5,10 fibers, made from castor oil–derived sebacic acid and corn-based pentamethylenediamine. It hopes to start selling the biobased fibers into textile markets next year. In a recycling push, Toray and the engineering firm Axens are studying a polyethylene terephthalate (PET) depolymerization plant for France. The plant would break down 80,000 metric tons per year of PET into the precursor bis(2-hydroxyethyl) terephthalate. Toray also established a joint venture for lithium-ion battery separator films in Hungary with LG Chem.
Evonik Industries is yet another major chemical maker planning a portfolio transformation. The German company intends to divest its performance material businesses by the end of 2023. These commodities, such as C4 chemicals, isononyl alcohol, and superabsorbent polymers, generate about 20% of the firm’s sales. Evonik had been considering a sale of superabsorbents—used in diapers and similar applications—since late 2020. At the same time, the firm plans to invest $3.2 billion in sustainable businesses. Separately, in June, Evonik announced it would build a $220 million plant in Lafayette, Indiana, for lipids used in messenger RNA applications like COVID-19 vaccines. The company has been supplying this burgeoning market from facilities in Germany. Evonik is also building a plant to make rhamnolipids, a class of biobased surfactants, in Slovakia.
Later this year, Shell will open an ethylene and polyethylene complex in Monaca, Pennsylvania. The facility was the only one among a wave of new US ethylene crackers to be situated far from the Gulf Coast. The project took a long time. It was announced a decade ago, and construction began in 2017. It may be Shell’s last conventional ethylene project for a while. The company is collaborating with Dow to electrify the steam cracking process. The partners recently started an experimental unit in Amsterdam to test designs that could replace current natural gas–fired cracker furnaces. They want to build a large pilot plant by 2025. And at a recent conference, Shell officials said the company is running feedstocks based on biomass and plastic pyrolysis oil through its ethylene complex in Norco, Louisiana. The company intends to process 180,000 metric tons (t) of the alternative feedstocks by 2023 and to ramp up use to 600,000 t in 3–5 years.
Edward D. Breen took over as DuPont’s CEO in October 2015, and since then the company has seen relentless portfolio restructuring. After only a few months on the job, Breen announced a merger with Dow. The resulting company split into the three firms—DuPont, Dow, and Corteva Agriscience—in 2019. Breen wasn’t finished, though. Last year, DuPont merged its nutrition and biosciences business with International Flavors & Fragrances. In another big transaction, it agreed in February to sell its engineering polymer business to Celanese for $11 billion. Meanwhile, DuPont has been bulking up in electronic materials, a business that Breen had previously been on the fence about. Late last year, DuPont agreed to purchase Rogers, a firm that makes laminates for circuit boards, for $5.2 billion. In July 2021, DuPont bought Laird Performance Materials, which makes heat and electric shielding.
Chemical capital spending and R&D budgets increased for most companies in 2021.
|Chemical capital spending||Chemical R&D spending|
|2021 ($ MILLIONS)||CHANGE FROM 2020||% OF CHEMICAL SALES||2021 ($ MILLIONS)||CHANGE FROM 2020||% OF CHEMICAL SALES|
|Mitsubishi Chemical Group||1,863||-12.0||6.1||n/a||n/a||n/a|
Sources: Company documents, C&EN analysis.
Note: Figures are for companies on the top 50 list reporting capital and/or R&D expenditures. n/a means not available.
Yara is planning an initial public offering for its clean ammonia business on the Oslo Stock Exchange. The unit, which had sales of $1.2 billion in 2021, operates Yara’s trade and shipping arm. It will also oversee the company’s low-carbon ammonia projects. Yara hopes the offering will raise capital that the unit needs to grow. The firm’s most ambitious clean ammonia project so far is a plan to install water electrolyzers at its plant in Porsgrunn, Norway. These units, powered by renewable electricity, will generate the hydrogen needed to make about 450,000 metric tons of green ammonia per year, to be sold as fuel for shipping and power plants. In another technological development for the company, Yara Birkeland, billed as the world’s first electric and self-propelled container ship, made its first voyage, to Oslo, Norway, in November.
A Rongsheng Petrochemical subsidiary, Zhejiang Petroleum & Chemical, started up the second phase of its massive refining and petrochemical complex in Zhejiang, China, in 2021. With capacity now doubled, the facility can process 40 million metric tons (t) of oil per year. The facility has a large petrochemical output: up to 6.6 million t of aromatics and 1.4 million t of ethylene per year. The expansion allowed the company to start making specialized polymers, such as acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene and polycarbonate.
The South Korean chemical maker Lotte Chemical has been beefing up its battery material business. In June, Lotte and Sasol began studying the construction of a plant for battery electrolyte solvents in the US or Germany. Lotte already makes ethylene carbonate and dimethyl carbonate electrolyte solvents in Daesan, South Korea, and in February, it launched a $500 million program to expand output. As part of this project, Lotte is building a carbon-capture-and-liquefaction facility at the site that will provide captured carbon dioxide for electrolyte production. Separately, Lotte and the battery technology start-up Soelect are planning a joint venture for anode materials and solid electrolytes for electric vehicle batteries. The project would include a $200 million lithium-metal anode plant.
Mitsui Chemicals has a pair of collaborations with the Japanese technology firm Microwave Chemical. The companies developed a process to make carbon fiber by using microwaves to heat fibers during oxidation and carbonization. The partners claim the method is 50% more energy efficient than conventional ones. They are also working on a depolymerization technology for plastics. The firms are targeting automotive shredder residue, a mixture that is rich in polyethylene and polypropylene. Microwave says the process can break down these polymers into ethylene, propylene, and other chemicals. Separately, Mitsui plans to stop making the polyester raw material purified terephthalic acid at its Iwakuni-Ohtake Works in Japan in August 2023 because of competition from China.
The Thai polyester maker Indorama Ventures made another big acquisition to diversify its business earlier this year when it bought the ethoxylated surfactant maker Oxiteno from the Brazilian conglomerate Ultrapar Participações for $1.3 billion. Oxiteno has about $1 billion in annual sales. In 2020, Indorama bought Huntsman’s US-based surfactant unit, its first big move into surfactants. Indorama, already a big mechanical recycler of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), is plunging into the chemical recycling of plastics. It plans to build a plant in Longlaville, France, that will depolymerize PET using an enzymatic process from the start-up Carbios. The facility will be close to an Indorama PET plant.
Chevron Phillips Chemical is making a big push into sustainable plastics. The company recently recorded its first commercial sales of Marlex Anew circular polyethylene, made from pyrolysis oil derived from waste plastics. It aims to sell about 450,000 metric tons per year of the material by 2030. It has also invested in two firms that chemically recycle plastics, Nexus Circular and Mura Technology. Atlanta-based Nexus already supplies pyrolysis oil to Chevron Phillips. Mura is a British firm developing a supercritical steam based process to treat postconsumer plastics. Separately, Chevron Phillips recently announced it would double capacity for poly(α-olefins), which are used in lubricants, at its plant in Belgium.
The Belgian catalyst maker Umicore has ambitious goals to help the mass adoption of electric vehicles by solving that sector’s knotty problem of conserving precious raw materials. Earlier this year, Umicore announced that it would build what it calls the world’s largest battery recycling facility. It plans to build it, at a European location, by 2026. The facility will process 150,000 metric tons per year of battery materials, 15 times the amount at its current recycling facilities. Long term, Umicore aims to build a similar unit in North America. Separately, the company is providing lithium-battery recycling technology to the French battery maker Automotive Cells.
Solvay, one of Europe’s oldest chemical companies, plans to split in two. The larger of the two resulting firms would house its specialty polymers, aerospace composites, consumer ingredients, and aroma chemical businesses and have $6.6 billion in annual sales. The other would have $4.5 billion in sales and make commodity chemicals such as soda ash and peroxides. The move builds on a company plan announced in 2021 to carve out and possibly sell its soda ash business. The bigger split-up scheme got pushback from financial analysts, who questioned the advantages of combining businesses as varied as aerospace materials and consumer product ingredients. Solvay executives responded that specialty chemical businesses bear similarities, such as their appetite for capital allocation.
To limit liability from litigation, Bayer said last year that it would stop using glyphosate in its residential Roundup herbicide products in 2023. The company has reached a $10 billion settlement with thousands of plaintiffs who claim glyphosate contributed to their non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But more suits, not subject to the settlement, remain, and more could be filed. In May, Bayer caught a break when the a European Union panel ruled that glyphosate does not pose a cancer risk. However, in the US, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to reevaluate glyphosate. It found that a previous EPA review exonerating the chemical didn’t follow the agency’s own guidelines for evaluating cancer risk.
Potash and phosphate prices have been high, and so have profits at the leading US fertilizer producer: Mosaic enjoyed a 22% operating profit margin in 2021. The company aims to increase potash production by 2 million metric tons per year this year versus 2020 levels. It has reopened its Colonsay, Saskatchewan, plant, which had been idle for 2 years because of poor market conditions. Additionally, Mosaic has started up a new potash mine shaft in Esterhazy, Saskatchewan, while closing two older shafts at that location.
Nutrien is giving serious backing to low-carbon ammonia. The fertilizer company is contemplating spending $2 billion to build what it says would be the world’s largest clean ammonia plant. The unit, in Geismar, Louisiana, would make up to 1.2 million metric tons per year of ammonia from natural gas and capture 90% of the production’s carbon dioxide emissions, which it would sequester underground. Nutrien already captures CO2 at plants in Louisiana and Alberta for use in enhanced oil recovery. Separately, in the face of tight potash supplies, due in part to the war in Ukraine, Nutrien aims to increase potash production 40% by 2025.
Over the past year, Arkema has placed a lot of emphasis on one of its core businesses, adhesives, as well as on an emerging business, battery materials. The French specialty chemical maker bought Ashland’s adhesives business in February for $1.65 billion. The business has $360 million in annual sales of water-based polyurethane wood glues and acrylic, pressure-sensitive adhesives for packaging labels and other applications. In 2015, Arkema bought the adhesives maker Bostik from Total for $2.2 billion. With Nippon Shokubai, Arkema is studying the feasibility of producing lithium bis(fluorosulfonyl)imide electrolyte salts, used in next-generation batteries, in France. Arkema’s goal is to have sales to the battery market of at least $1 billion per year by 2030. To that end, it is also expanding capacity for poly(vinylidene fluoride) in Pierre-Bénite, France. The polymer is used as a binder and separator material in lithium-ion batteries.
Asahi Kasei has been making a push into biobased chemicals. It plans to make the building-block chemical acrylonitrile from biomass-derived propylene at its Tongsuh Petrochemical subsidiary in South Korea. It will use a mass-balance approach, in which biomass fed into a conventional petrochemical plant is credited to a share of products that are made. And at a conference in Washington, DC, in March, company officials said Asahi would commercialize nylon 6,6 made with biobased hexamethylenediamine from Genomatica. Meanwhile, the Japanese company is exiting one of its old-line operations. In August, the company said it was leaving the clear styrene block copolymer business by 2023 because of deteriorating profitability.
All the elements are moving into place to complete DSM’s transformation from a diversified chemical maker into a firm that focuses on nutrition and health ingredients. In May, DSM announced it would merge with the Swiss flavor and fragrance company Firmenich to create a company with $43 billion in market value. At the same time, DSM is jettisoning its remaining conventional chemical businesses. The day it unveiled the Firmenich merger, DSM disclosed plans to sell its engineering polymer business to a joint venture between the German chemical maker Lanxess and the private equity firm Advent International for $4.1 billion. The business makes workhorse engineering polymers like nylon 6 and 6,6. It also has a franchise in higher-end nylons like 4,6 and 4,10. In April, DSM agreed to sell its Dyneema ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene business to Avient.
In June, Hanwha Solutions detailed plans to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Some 70% of the carbon reduction at the South Korean chemical and solar material maker will come from using renewable energy. Replacing fossil fuels in its manufacturing processes with hydrogen will yield another 15%. The balance of cuts will come from better efficiency and carbon capture. The company is also making investments in sustainability. It helped lead a $21 million venture capital investment in Novoloop, a California-based start-up that is developing a technology to convert postconsumer polyethylene into thermoplastic polyurethanes and other chemicals.
Eastman Chemical is taking another swing at making acetylated wood. It attempted to build a business in the moisture-resistant lumber, made by treating wood with acetic anhydride, about a decade ago but ran into trouble ramping it up. Now Eastman and the acetylated wood producer Accsys Technologies plan to build an acetylated wood plant at Eastman’s Kingsport, Tennessee, complex. The plant will cost $136 million and be completed in 2024. Eastman is also accelerating the rollout of its polyethylene terephthalate depolymerization process. Earlier this year, the company unveiled plans to build a plant using the methanolysis technology in France. It will be 45% bigger than one it aims to complete in Kingsport, Tennessee, by the end of this year. Eastman plans to use dimethyl terephthalate from the plant to make its own specialty polyesters.
Johnson Matthey (JM) is trying to find its footing. The British firm makes precious-metal catalysts for catalytic converters and is thus heavily reliant on internal combustion automotive engines, which face a bleak long-term outlook. The company has also been exiting noncore businesses. In June, it closed a deal to sell its pharmaceutical chemical business to the private equity firm Altaris Capital Partners for $430 million. The firm is retaining a 30% stake in the business, which generates more than $300 million in sales annually. Additionally, JM is selling its European battery material operations to Australia’s EV Metals Group and a battery material plant in Canada to Nano One Materials. But a possibility remains that JM itself will change hands. In April, US industrial firm Standard Industries revealed purchased a 5% stake in the company. Machinations like this often foretell a takeover. Standard bought another catalyst firm, W. R. Grace, in 2021.
Air Products’ aspirations in sustainable hydrogen get more ambitious each year. In October, the company announced plans for what it says will be the world’s largest blue hydrogen complex—a $4.5 billion plant slated to open in Ascension Parish, Louisiana, in 2026. Some of the hydrogen will be sold to regional industrial customers, while some will be used to make ammonia for the fuel market. The company is building its own carbon-capture-and-storage infrastructure that will take in the carbon dioxide from the natural gas–based hydrogen production. It has secured sites from the state of Louisiana where it would be able to store 5 million metric tons per year of CO2 1.6 km underground. In the Middle East, Air Products, the Saudi firm ACWA Power, and the Omani state energy firm OQ have agreed to build a green ammonia plant in Oman, and Air Products and ACWA plan a similar project in Saudi Arabia.
The fertilizer maker EuroChem Group makes C&EN’s global ranking for the first time this year. The company is headquartered in Zug, Switzerland, but originated in Russia, where it has most of its operations. EuroChem has been caught up in the war in Ukraine more than any other chemical producer in the Global Top 50. The European Union slapped sanctions on Andrey Melnichenko, EuroChem’s founder and then owner of 90% of its stock. He tried to transfer the shares to his wife, but the EU hit her with sanctions, too. EuroChem also had a deal on the table to buy Borealis’s fertilizer business for $520 million, but the Russian invasion scuttled it.
In a transaction that will allow it to focus strictly on petrochemicals and polymers, Borealis received an $870 million offer in June for its nitrogen fertilizer business from the Czech agricultural conglomerate Agrofert. The business had sales of about $1.5 billion in 2021. The deal works out nicely for Borealis, which had an earlier overture of $520 million from EuroChem Group. Borealis walked away from that deal because of the war in Ukraine and EuroChem’s Russian connections. Borealis might have missed an opportunity to be affiliated with a high-end polymer business. OMV, the Austrian refiner that owns 75% of Borealis, put in a bid to purchase DSM’s engineering polymer business. But OMV lost out to a partnership between Advent International and Lanxess.
PTT Global Chemical rejoins the Global Top 50 after a 1-year absence. The Thai petrochemical maker made a major diversification play late last year when it purchased the German coatings resins maker Allnex for $4.8 billion from the private equity firm Advent International. Allnex has annual sales of about $2.4 billion. PTT’s backing, Allnex management hopes, will help it expand into Asia. In the US, PTT has had a large petrochemical complex on the drawing board since 2015. But its air permits from the state of Ohio expired in February. The company said at the time that it was seeking new permits that aligned with its goals of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. It subsequently unveiled a plastics recycling project for the state.
The main issue at Sasol for several years was a petrochemical complex in Lake Charles, Louisiana, that went $4 billion over budget and led to a major management shake-up. Another recent setback for the firm came in November, when South African regulators blocked the sale of its business in sodium cyanide to Draslovka, already a strong player in that field. Now there are signs of green shoots at the South African firm. Sasol and South Korea’s Lotte Chemical are studying the construction of a plant to make battery electrolyte solvents in Lake Charles or at Sasol’s complex in Marl, Germany. Sasol would provide the raw materials.
TongKun Group is one of a handful of integrated Chinese polyester producers that have grown so big in recent years that they are now finding their way into the Global Top 50. The company is based in Tongxiang, in the coastal Chinese province of Zhejiang. It was founded in 1981 with the name Tongxiang County Chemical Fiber Factory. TongKun now has more than 30,000 employees as well as 8.6 million metric tons (t) per year of polyester filament production capacity and 4.2 million t of capacity for the polyester raw material purified terephthalic acid.
Lanxess is planning a likely exit from the polymer business. The German company and the private equity firm Advent International formed a joint venture to buy DSM’s engineering polymer business—a producer of high-end nylon resins—for $4.1 billion. Lanxess is contributing its own business, which makes polybutylene terephthalate and nylon 6, to the partnership. It will own an up to 40% stake in the joint venture for 3 years, after which it will have an option to sell. At the same time, Lanxess is growing in specialty chemicals. Earlier this month, it completed the purchase of International Flavors & Fragrances’ microbial control business for about $1.3 billion. The business, which once belonged to Dow, makes glutaraldehyde biocides and isothiazolinone-based antimicrobials and has $450 million in annual sales.
This is the first year in the Global Top 50 for Hengyi Petrochemical, a Chinese firm that primarily makes polyester and nylon 6. Hengyi affiliates recently started a massive refining and petrochemical complex in Brunei. The 2.1 million metric tons per year of p-xylene and benzene made in this new complex is being sent to China for conversion into the polyester raw material purified terephthalic acid and the nylon precursor caprolactam. The company is planning a second phase of the Brunei project, which will include an ethylene cracker and derivatives units.