Credit: Will Ludwig/C&EN/Shutterstock
For the global chemical industry, 2018 was another strong year, yet it showed signs of a slowdown, according to C&EN’s annual survey of the Global Top 50 chemical companies. Sales rose healthily for the group during 2018, the fiscal year on which the survey is based. Excluding PetroChina, which reported chemical sales for only 2018, chemical companies in the top 50 combined for $926.8 billion in chemical revenue, an increase of 13.4% from the same companies’ sales the year before.
Earnings didn’t increase as much, an indication, possibly, that the market might be losing its steam. For the 48 chemical firms posting comparable year-over-year results, chemical operating profits rose only 3.4%, to $110.1 billion.
Twenty-three firms posted profit declines. Interestingly, six out of eight Japanese firms on the list reported a drop in earnings.
One factor that might explain the softening profitability is the petrochemical building cycle. Ethylene and polyethylene plants are coming on line in the US, putting a damper on profit margins globally. Petrochemical softening is always particularly acute in Asia, where profit margins are slim to begin with. Indeed, India’s Reliance Industries reports that the new capacity was a business headwind all year.
Leading the Global Top 50 is a new company: DowDuPont, the result of the 2017 merger between Dow Chemical and DuPont. It ends BASF’s 12-year reign as the largest chemical company in the world, but only temporarily. DowDuPont already split into three separate firms—Dow, DuPont, and Corteva Agriscience—earlier this year. Dow and DuPont will surely appear in next year’s ranking a year from now.
The Global Top 50 lost two other firms to dealmaking this year. Linde AG and Praxair merged into a new firm called Linde plc. AkzoNobel sold its specialty chemical business, Nouryon, to the private equity firm the Carlyle Group and the Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC, and Nouryon alone didn’t make the cut.
Five new firms did make the cut. The largest is PetroChina, which is breaking out chemical sales for the first time. Nutrien is the result of the merger between Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan and Agrium. Platinum-group catalyst suppliers Umicore and Johnson Matthey are on the list. US chemical maker Celanese rounds it out at number 50, where it debuts.
DowDuPont has broken BASF’s 12-year streak as the largest chemical maker in the world. But DowDuPont’s reign at the top will be brief. The company, formed on Aug. 31, 2017, has already split up into three companies. The largest of these, Dow, spun off on April 1, 2019. Just like the old Dow, it is headquartered in Midland, Michigan. But the new Dow is focused more on petrochemicals and polymers than Dow Chemical was before the merger with DuPont. Dow’s $48.8 billion in sales last year would have put it at 4th in this year’s Global Top 50 ranking. The new DuPont, which contains the combined firms’ specialties businesses, separated on June 3. It would have secured the 14th slot with $22.6 billion in 2018 sales. Crop protection chemical and seed businesses from Dow and DuPont were combined into Corteva Agriscience, which also separated on June 3. With $6.3 billion in chemical sales in 2018, it would not have made the Global Top 50. Both Dow and DuPont are emerging with plans to put cash into the pockets of their shareholders. Leaders at both companies say they will shun big spending on long-term R&D in favor of less-expensive, customer-focused projects. Both companies are also preaching modesty in capital spending. This is especially the case at Dow, which is ramping up big-ticket petrochemical plants on the US Gulf Coast as well as at its $20 billion Sadara joint venture with Saudi Aramco.
DowDuPont has dethroned BASF as the world’s largest chemical maker. But given that DowDuPont has already split up into Dow, DuPont, and Corteva Agriscience, the German chemical maker looks sure to reclaim the top spot next year. BASF’s strategy has been to fine-tune its portfolio with medium-sized deals. The company has put its pigment business on the selling block and also wants to divest its construction chemical unit. BASF recently merged its paper chemical business with Solenis. The company’s purchase of Solvay’s nylon 6,6 business has received regulatory approval and is nearly completed. On the organic growth front, BASF is aggressively investing in China. Last July, the company announced plans for a $10 billion integrated chemical complex in Guangdong Province in southern China. On top of that, it is doubling the capacity of its ethylene cracker joint venture in China with Sinopec. The investments come amid a rough 2019 so far for BASF. The company says it will cut 6,000 jobs by 2021, and it expects a 30% decline in earnings versus 2018 because of weak demand in agriculture and high-margin chemicals.
It was another big year for Sinopec, with a 22% increase in chemical sales to nearly $70 billion. The Chinese petrochemical giant should claim the number 2 spot in the Global Top 50 next year because of the breakup of DowDuPont into three separate companies. The new Dow, the largest of the three firms with $48.8 billion in sales, isn’t nearly as large as Sinopec. The third-largest chemical maker in the world is deepening its relationship with the second largest. Sinopec and BASF last year announced plans to more than double the size of their ethylene cracker partnership in Nanjing, China. That joint venture, called BASF-YPC, opened a propionic acid plant earlier this year.
In the biggest chemical deal of 2019 so far, Saudi Aramco inked an agreement to buy a 70% stake in Sabic from the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia for $69 billion. The deal should come as no surprise. State-owned Aramco has long said it wants to plunge deeper into chemicals to minimize the blow of an eventual decline in fuel demand globally. To that end, Aramco and Sabic were already planning a massive oil-to-chemical complex in Saudi Arabia. Sabic has been expanding overseas and is involving itself more deeply in specialty chemicals. It is moving forward on a $10 billion ethylene cracker joint venture with ExxonMobil near Corpus Christi, Texas. It may also join a large methanol project in Louisiana. In China, it is considering building a cracker in Fujian. And last year, it bought a 25% stake in the Swiss specialty chemical maker Clariant for $2.4 billion.
Ineos is increasingly complementing its habit of buying chemical assets from big companies with plans to build ones of its own. For example, the company announced last month that it will spend $2 billion to build acrylonitrile, linear α-olefin, and poly-α-olefin plants in Jubail, Saudi Arabia, by 2025. In Europe, Ineos picked Antwerp, Belgium, as the location for the continent’s first new ethylene cracker in 20 years. The $3.4 billion project will also include a propane dehydrogenation plant. On its home turf, Ineos unveiled a $1.3 billion spending plan for the UK. It includes a vinyl acetate plant in Hull, England, as well as infrastructure upgrades at its Grangemouth, Scotland, petrochemical complex. Of course, Ineos is still an opportunistic buyer. It is purchasing a titanium dioxide plant in Ashtabula, Ohio, from Tronox to help clear Tronox’s merger with white pigment rival Cristal. And it’s buying Ashland’s composites business.
The action for Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics has been at its US chemical arm, which is close to completing several large expansion projects on the Gulf Coast. The company’s new ethylene cracker, its third at its Point Comfort, Texas, site, is scheduled to be completed later this year. The company will open low-density and high-density polyethylene plants as well. Next year, the company will complete a polypropylene unit at the site. In 2021, at its Baton Rouge, Louisiana, site, Formosa will complete a polyvinyl chloride expansion. Another Formosa Group company, Formosa Petrochemical, is planning its own massive $9.4 billion project in Louisiana.
ExxonMobil Chemical has a new president, Karen McKee, who formerly led ExxonMobil’s basic chemicals business. Under her leadership, the company is moving forward with many big-ticket investments. It is planning a large ethylene cracker, along with downstream polymers plants, in Daya Bay, China. ExxonMobil has green-lit a $10 billion joint venture with Sabic to build a similar complex near Corpus Christi, Texas. It also gave the go-ahead to $2 billion in projects at its Baytown, Texas, complex. It started a cracker at the site just a year ago. There, ExxonMobil will now build an α-olefin plant, entering that business, as well as a plant to make its Vistamaxx propylene-ethylene copolymers. It is also planning a polypropylene plant for its Baton Rouge, Louisiana, site.
LyondellBasell Industries ended talks last month to purchase a majority stake in rival Braskem from Braskem’s controlling shareholder, the Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht. With the purchase, LyondellBasell would have gotten a South American petrochemical maker much like itself. The reasons why LyondellBasell walked away from the deal are unclear. In February, LyondellBasell CEO Bob Patel told financial analysts that a change in Brazil’s government was delaying the deal. The government controls the state oil company Petrobras, a Braskem minority shareholder. Patel has more than just acquisitions on his mind. He is a vice chairman of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which aims to spend $1.5 billion on plastic waste reduction initiatives. “Our children are being taught in school that plastics are bad,” Patel said at the IHS Markit World Petrochemical Conference in San Antonio this past spring. “If we don’t do something about this waste issue, then perhaps their teachers are right.”
Mitsubishi Chemical is bringing its concept of Kaiteki—“the sustainable well-being of people, society and our planet Earth”—to the US. The Japanese company is funding the Global Kaiteki Center, which will focus on sustainability, at Arizona State University. Chemical engineering professor George Stephanopoulos will lead it. On the business front, Mitsubishi has been reserved, making mostly modest-sized acquisitions. Last year, for example, the company bought Cleanpart Group, a German provider of cleaning and coating services for semiconductor manufacturing equipment. Mitsubishi already offered similar services through its Shinryo subsidiary. In a larger transaction, Mitsubishi’s industrial gas business, Taiyo Nippon Sanso, bought Praxair’s European operations. Antitrust regulators required Praxair to make the divestiture before they would clear its merger with Linde.
Already a giant in display materials, LG Chem bought soluble organic light-emitting diode technology from DuPont. The display materials can be applied using inkjet technology as opposed to the vacuum thermal evaporation process more common today. In another hot market, LG Chem is suing its fellow South Korean chemical company SK Innovation over alleged theft of lithium-ion battery trade secrets. The suit says SK hired away 77 LG battery-division employees, some of whom allegedly brought proprietary information with them.
The Indian conglomerate’s chemical business had a strong 2018, with sales increasing 37% and profits jumping more than 50%. Reliance credits strength in the polyester chain. Profit margins for polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used in beverage bottles, increased by 32%. The company says supplies have been tight because of plant outages in the US and Europe. Meanwhile, precursors for PET—namely, purified terephthalic acid and p-xylene—each saw profit margins increase by 38%. One drag on Reliance’s profits has been polyolefins, for which markets have been slack because of new capacity in the US. But the US is bringing benefits to Reliance as well: the company has been importing ethane from the US to run its crackers in India.
The Chinese refiner and oil, gas, and petrochemical supplier PetroChina makes its debut in the Global Top 50 this year. After years of reporting chemical results together with its refining business, obscuring sales figures, the company broke out chemicals in its annual report this year. Much like Sinopec, a larger Chinese rival in chemicals, PetroChina makes commodity petrochemicals for a country with a large and expanding manufacturing sector thirsty for basic intermediates and polymers. The company wants to transition. It aims to “accelerate research and development on new products needed by the market,” wrote the company’s chair, Wang Yilin, in his annual letter to shareholders in March.
The French industrial gas maker is committed to an open-innovation strategy. Last month it launched Accelair at its Paris Innovation Campus. This incubator will host about 20 “deep tech” start-ups, which will be afforded experimental space as well as access to Air Liquide experts. They will work on technologies in energy, the environment, aerospace, agribusiness, and health care. In March, the company inaugurated its Tokyo Innovation Campus in Japan. It invested $60 million in the space, where 200 employees will work in fields such as advanced materials and energy efficiency. Air Liquide has also invested $20 million in the Canadian firm Hydrogenics, which specializes in electrolysis hydrogen production equipment. The companies will collaborate on proton-exchange membrane technologies.
Toray Industries is a giant in a market that is booming: synthetic suede. The material, made from polyurethane and polyester, has taken off in recent years in markets such as high-end car interiors. The company makes the products in Japan, and an affiliate, Alcantara, makes them in Italy. “We position our materials as being in a category of their own, not a synthetic suede or an alternative to real leather,” Yasuhiro Takagi, general manager of Toray’s advanced fiber material division, told C&EN last year. This year the company is launching a version with 30% biobased content. It will contain polyurethane made with castor oil and polyester made with sugar-derived ethylene glycol. Related to this business, Toray has opened Automotive Center Europe in the suburbs of Munich.
As part of its strategy to focus less on commodity chemicals and more on specialties, Evonik Industries agreed in March to sell its methacrylate business to Advent International for $3.4 billion. The deal comes with the fabled Plexiglas name everywhere but the US, where it is an Arkema trademark. Advent is also getting CyPlus, which supplies sodium cyanide for refining gold. Evonik is also making acquisitions. In November, the company agreed to purchase the hydrogen peroxide and peracetic acid maker PeroxyChem for $625 million. Tying up a loose end from its 2017 purchase of Air Products’ specialty chemical business, Evonik agreed to purchase Air Products’ Trexlertown, Pennsylvania, campus, which houses R&D labs. Evonik plans to invest $50 million at the site. The company is increasingly getting involved with 3-D printing. Earlier this month it introduced a line of 3-D printing filaments for bioresorbable medical implants.
Covestro unveiled plans last year for its largest-ever investment: a $1.7 billion methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI) plant in Baytown, Texas. The plant will have 500,000 metric tons of annual capacity for the polyurethane raw material when it comes on line by 2024. The former Bayer business is also doubling capacity at its MDI plant in Brunsbüttel, Germany, and spending $340 million on capacity for aniline, an MDI precursor, in Belgium. At the same time, Covestro is cutting back. Last November, the company disclosed it is eliminating about 900 jobs, more than 5% its workforce, as part of a program to slash $400 million in costs. It is also selling its European polyurethane systems-house business to the private equity firm H.I.G. Capital for nearly $100 million.
Bayer, which bought Monsanto last year, has a crisis on its hands. A California court awarded a couple a total of $2 billion in a lawsuit alleging that their non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was linked to 40 years of using Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide on their property. In earlier cases, plaintiffs won awards in the tens of millions of dollars. In all, Bayer faces 13,400 potential Roundup cases. The company’s stock price has declined by about 40% since it bought Monsanto, and shareholders are in revolt. “Management infected a healthy Bayer with the Monsanto virus,” one major shareholder reportedly said at the company’s annual meeting in April. Perhaps because of the pressure, the company recently announced that it will spend $5.5 billion over the next decade on new herbicide technologies.
The past year has demonstrated that Sumitomo Chemical sees start-ups as a conduit to new technology. Earlier this summer, the Japanese company announced it will work with the French firm Isorg to develop organic photodetectors for use in camera and smartphone fingerprint sensors. Sumitomo also invested in a food and agriculture venture fund operated by Cultivian Sandbox Ventures, which raised $135 million to invest in sustainable food start-ups such as animal-free-collagen maker Geltor. Sumitomo is collaborating with Zymergen, an industrial biotechnology start-up, on materials for use in consumer electronics. And in the largest of such relationships with start-ups, Sumitomo acquired a $45 million stake in Joled, a Japanese firm developing the world’s first plant to produce electronic displays via printing.
Braskem has had a peculiar 2019 so far. The company’s majority shareholder, the Brazilian industrial conglomerate Odebrecht, had been negotiating a sale of its stake in Braskem to LyondellBasell Industries. Odebrecht was a key player in a massive corruption scandal, as was Braskem’s other major shareholder, Petrobras, and both are eager to sell off assets to raise cash. But more than a year of negotiations yielded no deal, and now Braskem is presumably in play again. Moreover, the Brazilian petrochemical maker is contending with a potential New York Stock Exchange delisting because it has yet to file its 2017 annual report with the US Securities and Exchange Commission. It also had to suspend some chlor-alkali operations in Brazil because its brine-extraction operations were linked to earthquakes.
The large South Korean chemical maker has completed its foray into the US market. With partner Westlake Chemical, it built a $3.1 billion petrochemical complex in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Downstream from a new cracker, Lotte built a $1.1 billion ethylene glycol plant of its own. Lotte has boasted that the project is the largest US project completed by a South Korean petrochemical maker. And, whereas many large Gulf Coast chemical projects headed by other companies are delayed, Lotte officials are proud that their project started up on time. “Not too many people can say that,” Jim Rock, director of the site for Lotte, said in February.
Linde AG merged with Praxair last October to become Linde plc. Since the industrial gas firms were together for just a couple of months of 2018, their sales of $14.9 billion were only a modest increase from the $11.4 billion that Praxair alone posted in 2017. But pro forma results—the sales the companies would have had if they had been merged all year—were $29.8 billion, enough to make Linde number 9 in the Global Top 50. That’s also more than enough to make Linde the largest industrial gas company in the world, ahead of Air Liquide at $24.3 billion in annual sales. The parties had to make a lot of concessions to get the deal past antitrust regulators. They sold most of Linde’s bulk gas business in North America to a partnership of Messer and CVC Capital Partners. The companies agreed to sell Praxair’s European industrial gas business to Taiyo Nippon Sanso.
The Japanese chemical maker has been on an investing spree. Last July, Shin-Etsu Chemical announced a $1.5 billion investment in its vinyl business in Plaquemine, Louisiana. Then in September, the company announced a $1 billion investment in its silicone business. Just under half of the spending is on monomer expansions in Japan and Thailand. Shin-Etsu is also investing in plants making downstream silicone products in six countries. Additionally, the firm is spending $125 million to expand quartz photomask blanks in Japan.
Quiet on the merger and acquisition front, Mitsui Chemicals is instead rolling out a series of expansions across its businesses. In Singapore, the Japanese firm will build a plant to produce α-methylstyrene, used in making petroleum resins and as a performance modifier for acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene plastics. Also in Singapore, Mitsui will expand production of its Tafmer elastomer by 10%. And at its plant in Ichihara, Japan, the company will increase production capacity for its Lucant hydrocarbon-based synthetic oil.
The Belgian chemical maker has a new head, Ilham Kadri, who at the beginning of the year replaced Jean-Pierre Clamadieu as CEO. Formerly CEO of the hygiene services firm Diversey, Kadri inherits a strategy of divesting commodity chemical businesses to focus on specialties. To that end, Solvay has nearly completed the divestiture of its nylon 6,6 business to BASF for $1.8 billion. However, worried about industry overconcentration, the European Commission is requiring that BASF divest some Solvay assets related to nylon 6,6 polymer and raw materials such as hexamethylenediamine.
Yara aims to be “the crop nutrition company for the future.” To get there, the Norwegian company spent $43 million on R&D in 2018, not a king’s ransom, but a lot for a fertilizer company. One fruit of that R&D effort is a sensor that clips to farmers’ mobile phones. It measures chlorophyll levels in wheat, rapeseed, corn, and barley and offers fertilizer dose recommendations. “Farmers are digital first movers, using sensors, big data, cloud solutions, and satellite-supported tools,” says Yara CEO Svein Tore Holsether. It’s also partnering with Engie to produce “green” ammonia from renewable hydrogen.
Chevron Phillips Chemical has launched a salvo of investments in recent weeks. On July 9, it held a signing ceremony at the White House for a planned $8 billion ethylene cracker project on the US Gulf Coast with Qatar Petroleum. The project will include a large ethylene cracker and two downstream polyethylene plants. Just weeks prior, the same two partners announced an almost identical projectfor Qatar. The new complexes are set to start up in 2024 and 2025, in the U.S. and Qatar, respectively. If that wasn’t enough, Chevron Phillips is rumored to be the suitor for the Canadian petrochemical producer Nova Chemicals, currently owned by Mubadala Investment, the sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Nova’s sales were $4.5 billion in 2018.
The past year has seen big investments in vitamin E from DSM. The Dutch company is spending $154 million for a 75% share in two Chinese vitamin E plants run by China’s Nenter. The partnership will exclusively supply DSM with the antioxidant. DSM also bought royalty rights for vitamin E production from biobased chemical maker Amyris for $57 million. DSM bought Amyris’s plant in Brotas, Brazil, in 2017. In food ingredients, Cargill and DSM launched a zero-calorie-sweetener joint venture called Avansya. It will use fermentation to make the glycosides rebaudioside M and D, found in the stevia plant. In its plastics business, DSM agreed to acquire the engineering plastic compounding operations of India’s SRF for $45 million. Earlier this year, DSM named Patricia Malarkey, former head of R&D at crop protection chemical maker Syngenta, as its chief innovation officer.
The Thai polyester maker’s rise onto the global chemical stage—through aggressive expansions and acquisitions—has been meteoric over the past 10 years, and Indorama isn’t slowing down. In December, the company—along with partners Alpek and Far Eastern New Century—completed the $1.2 billion acquisition of a purified terephthalic acid and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) complex in Corpus Christi, Texas. The Italian company M&G Chemicals was building the complex but went bankrupt before it could complete it. The same month, Indorama agreed to purchase Invista’s German PET operations. It also signed a deal to acquire a PET recycling operation in Alabama from Custom Polymers. Also in recycling, Indorama and Loop Industries plan to build a plant that will depolymerize postconsumer PET into the raw materials ethylene glycol and dimethyl terephthalate.
Thanks to burgeoning demand in electric vehicles and energy storage, Asahi Kasei’s business in separators for lithium-ion batteries is booming. In March, the company revealed it is investing $270 million to increase capacity for polyolefin separator film in Japan and North Carolina by 2021. The company already had an expansion project underway. Its overall goal is to have 3 million m2 of film capacity by 2025. Asahi was an outlier among Japanese firms in 2018. Like most of them, it increased sales during the year. But unlike other Japanese companies, it enjoyed an increase in earnings as well.
Most companies boosted capital and R&D spending.
|Chemical capital spending||Chemical R&D spending|
|2018 ($ millions)||Change from 2017||% of chemical sales||2018 ($ millions)||Change from 2017||% of chemical sales|
|Air Products & Chemicals||1,568||50.8||17.6||65||12.0||0.7|
Note: Figures are for companies on the Global Top 50 list reporting capital and/or R&D expenditures. n/a means not available.
Arkema is making a sizable specialty chemical acquisition, agreeing in May to purchase the Florida-based surfactant maker ArrMaz from the private equity firm Golden Gate Capital for $570 million. ArrMaz has annual sales of $290 million of fatty acid–, ester-, and sulfonate-based processing aids, defoamers, and dust-control coatings for industries such as mining and fertilizers. Late last year, Arkema bought Afinitica, which has a patented process for making cyanoacrylate monomers for instant adhesives. The French firm aims to combine Afinitica with its Bostik adhesives business. Earlier this year, Arkema chose Jurong Island in Singapore as the site of a planned nylon 11 plant that it estimates will cost $350 million.
One reason ChemChina purchased Syngenta in 2017 was to use its influence and connections to help Syngenta penetrate the Chinese market. So far, Syngenta’s inroads in China have been modest. Sales of crop protection chemicals and seeds in the country increased 6% last year to $319 million. Crop protection sales increased by 7% as Chinese farmers looked to use higher-value products in their fields. Chinese seed sales increased a mere 2%. The company’s sales in Latin America jumped 25%, but that is because 2017 was an abnormally difficult year.
Eastman Chemical is jumping into polymer recycling using tried-and-true technologies. The company plans to build a commercial facility within the next 3 years to break down polyethylene terephthalate waste into the raw materials dimethyl terephthalate and ethylene glycol. Eastman, once a part of Eastman Kodak, used the process decades ago to recycle materials such as X-ray film. Separately, at its Kingsport, Tennessee, plant, the company plans to gasify mixed plastic waste to make synthesis gas—a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Eastman currently gasifies coal to make syngas, which it converts into acetic acid and acetic anhydride.
Over the past couple of years, plastics companies have had to get more serious about what happens after consumers use their products. An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic waste ends up in the world’s oceans every year. One of the companies at the forefront of the effort is Borealis. The Austrian company is spearheading Project Stop, which is developing programs in countries, such as Indonesia, where the ocean waste problem is most acute. Solutions include developing a waste and recycling infrastructure in remote locations where waste management barely exists. Borealis has other plastic sustainability initiatives as well. About a month ago, it started collaborating with the Austrian machinery maker Erema to develop better mechanical recycling processes for plastics.
The South Korean chemical maker experienced another year of heady growth in 2018. Sales jumped 14%, though its profits declined. SK Innovation’s battery business, not included in the chemical results that make up C&EN’s survey, has been growing rapidly. It is building an electric-vehicle battery plant in Hungary and a battery separator film plant in Poland. Another South Korean chemical giant, LG Chem, is suing SK over alleged theft of battery trade secrets.
Mosaic has rocketed up the Global Top 50 from number 45 a year ago. In 2018, the US fertilizer maker purchased the Brazilian fertilizer business of the mining firm Vale for $2.5 billion. The acquisition brought with it phosphate and potash operations as well as 7,300 employees, doubling the size of Mosaic’s workforce. That helped the firm’s sales spike by nearly 30%.
In late 2017, Huntsman had to abandon its planned merger with specialty chemical maker Clariant because of Clariant shareholder agitation. Since then, the US-based chemical maker has been relatively quiet. Management didn’t run out and hastily ink another major chemical deal. But Huntsman has made a few modest expansions and purchases since then. It opened a polyurethane formulation plant in Vietnam and announced plans for a polyurethane systems house in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. In a midsize acquisition, Huntsman bought Demilec, a North American producer of spray insulation foams, for $350 million.
Wanhua Chemical is inching up the Global Top 50 ranking after debuting at 41 last year. The Chinese company, the world’s largest producer of the polyurethane raw material methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI), is moving forward with plans to establish a beachhead in the US. It has selected Convent, Louisiana, as the site for a $1.1 billion MDI plant to open in 2021. Polyurethane makers apparently believe the US hasn’t seen enough investment in MDI. Wanhua competitor Covestro is also building a Gulf Coast MDI plant.
The Thai chemical maker has been planning to build an ethylene cracker in Ohio since 2013. Originally, PTT Global Chemical’s partner was to be Japan’s Marubeni; South Korea’s Daelim later took Marubeni’s place. Along the way, the proposed size of the plant increased by 50% to 1.5 million metric tons per year. Despite these shifts, PTT is pressing on. In January, it received air and water permits from the state of Ohio. Officials in the region see the project as an important milestone in their efforts to cultivate a local petrochemical industry to take advantage of shale gas resources literally under their feet.
Ecolab’s chemical business will soon shrink. The company plans to spin off its upstream energy unit, which consists of its oil-field and well-completion chemical businesses, to shareholders in 2020. It’s keeping businesses in chemicals for petrochemical plants and refineries. That upstream energy unit generated $170 million in operating income on $2.4 billion in sales in 2018. The company says the oil-field chemical business has become like a specialty chemical business in the shale era and no longer aligns with other Ecolab businesses such as water treatment and institutional cleaning.
Unlike its competitors Linde and Praxair, which merged, and Air Liquide, which bought Airgas, Air Products and Chemicals hasn’t been seeking major acquisitions. Instead, its route to growth is large capital investments. For example, earlier this year, Air Products completed the largest industrial gas complex in the world in Jazan, Saudi Arabia. The plant will supply industrial gases such as oxygen and nitrogen to a refinery and combined cycle gasification plant that Saudi Aramco is building there. Also in Saudi Arabia but on a more modest scale, Air Products recently completed a hydrogen fueling station that will provide fuel to a fleet of six Toyota Mirais.
The US vinyls maker has seen spectacular growth in recent years, and that looks to continue. Earlier this year, Westlake Chemical started up—on time and on budget—a petrochemical complex in Lake Charles, Louisiana, that it built in partnership with South Korea’s Lotte Chemical. The $3.1 billion project included an ethane-based ethylene cracker as well as a Lotte-owned ethylene glycol plant, said to be the largest in the world. At the beginning of the year, Westlake bought Nakan, a French maker of polyvinyl chloride compounds, from the private equity firm OpenGate Capital for $265 million.
At the end of 2018, Lanxess completed the sale of its 50% stake in the synthetic rubber joint venture Arlanxeo to partner Saudi Aramco for $3.4 billion. The divestiture helps explain Lanxess’s 26% decline in sales. The German chemical maker sold the first half of Arlanxeo to Aramco in 2016. Lanxess used the proceeds from that sale to help fund the acquisition of the specialty chemical maker Chemtura the following year. The rationale for the transaction was to bolster Lanxess’s position in lubricant additives and flame retardants for plastics. In an organic expansion into a new line of business, Lanxess launched CheMondis, a business-to-business chemical e-commerce firm, earlier this year.
Nutrien, a new name in C&EN’s Global Top 50, was formed early last year through the merger of two Canadian fertilizer giants: Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan and Agrium. The company can make a massive 25 million metric tons per year of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus crop nutrients. The merger prompted Nutrien to put its 24% stake in the Chilean lithium producer SQM up for sale; that stake was formerly owned by PotashCorp. To say that the asset was of interest, given the increasing importance of lithium-ion batteries, is an understatement. Even Tesla is said to have looked at it. In the end, Nutrien sold it to China’s Tianqi Lithium, a deal initially opposed by other SQM shareholders.
Umicore joins the Global Top 50 for the first time this year. Like its British rival, Johnson Matthey, the Belgian company has seen sharp growth for platinum-group catalysts in emission control and other applications. In addition, Umicore has a business in cobalt-based materials for lithium-ion batteries that has been growing like gangbusters. This spring, the firm acquired a cobalt refinery in Kokkola, Finland, from Freeport Cobalt for $190 million. It is also building a $780 million battery cathode material plant in Poland. In recent weeks, Umicore raised $450 million from investors to go toward battery material development and recycling.
Sasol has had its challenges building a petrochemical complex in Lake Charles, Louisiana. In May, the South African company had to announce, once again, that the project faces cost overruns. Sasol says the facility will cost between $12.6 billion and $12.9 billion, up from the $11.6 billion to $11.8 billion it estimated in February. When the project got the go-ahead in 2014, it was supposed to cost $8.1 billion. Sasol faced construction problems such as defective carbon steel forgings for the ethylene cracker, which should be starting up this month. The company has also completed polyethylene and ethylene oxide plants as part of the project.
Tosoh posted chemical sales growth of nearly 5% in 2018. But like other Japanese chemical makers, it experienced a decline in profits, in its case nearly 20%. The company blamed “declining trade conditions” in its petrochemical and chlor-alkali businesses. The company did report improved profitability in its specialty chemical segment. In that business, it recently acquired a 33% stake in Semba Biosciences, a Madison, Wisconsin–based manufacturer of biomolecule-purification instruments.
Much like its rival Umicore, Johnson Matthey is looking to eastern Europe as a venue to host production of battery materials. This spring, it picked Konin, Poland, for its first plant for making lithium–nickel oxide cathode materials for lithium-ion batteries. JM plans to start production in 2021 with 10,000 metric tons per year of capacity, but output at the site could eventually end up being 10 times that amount. The British firm’s process chemistry arm is racking up achievements. It and Eastman Chemical signed up China’s Jiutai New Material as the first licensee of their jointly developed coal-to-ethylene glycol process. JM is also working with Virent and BP on a process for making biobased p-xylene.
In a move to expand its business in South Asia, the Japanese chemical maker formerly known as Dainippon Ink and Chemicals acquired Ideal Chemi Plast in 2018. The Indian firm makes coatings resins with acrylic, alkyd, and other chemistries. But not all of DIC’s news has been good. Last September, a storage tank being welded by contract workers exploded at the firm’s plant in Kashima, Japan, where it makes the engineering plastic polyphenylene sulfide. One worker died and another was injured.
Another year brought another big investment at Hanwha Total Petrochemical, Hanwha Chemical’s joint venture with the French oil company Total. The partnership will spend $500 million to increase polypropylene capacity in South Korea. The company says the expansion is thanks to imports of cheap propane extracted from US shale. Hanwha Total has also been expanding ethylene and polyethylene.
A familiar name in the US chemical industry, Celanese debuts in C&EN’s ranking this year. The company has a new CEO, Lori Ryerkerk, who took over from longtime leader Mark Rohr in May. Ryerkerk had been executive vice president of global manufacturing for Shell. Her background should help with the big expansion project that’s in the works for Celanese’s Clear Lake, Texas, site. There, the firm is expanding acetic acid capacity by more than 50% by 2021. Celanese earlier purchased a synthesis gas plant from Linde at the site, back-integrating the facility. The company is also expanding polyacetal production in Frankfurt, Germany, in a project it says will make the plant the largest of its kind in the world..