Credit: Will Ludwig/C&EN/Shutterstock
Chemical executives should remember 2017 fondly. According to C&EN's annual survey of the Global Top 50 chemical companies, sales rose strongly for the group, and profits did even better.
The 50 companies combined for $851.0 billion in chemical sales for 2017, the fiscal year on which the survey is based, a 12.2% increase from the year before. Only nine of the firms saw sales decline. This is a turnaround from recent surveys, as the Global Top 50 had seen sales decline in 2015 and 2016. A strong economy and rising oil prices led to the revenue increase.
Profitability swelled for the 48 of the 50 large chemical firms that publicly report profit figures. The companies combined for $108.6 billion in chemical earnings last year, a 14.4% increase from the year-ago period. No company lost money, and merely 13 reported a decline in profits.
The world economy continues to perform well this year, and the chemical industry should benefit from that once again. However, one storm cloud on the horizon is trade. Should the U.S. and China go through with a trade war and mark $200 billion in products for tariffs, the chemical industry—particularly U.S. petrochemical makers—could see an adverse impact.
This is the era of the chemical merger, and that trend has led to the debut of DowDuPont on the list at number 2. Linde's merger with Praxair and a potential LyondellBasell Industries acquisition of Braskem could affect future rankings.
But on the whole, C&EN's Global Top 50 looks much as it did a year ago. Only two companies that appeared in the last survey—British catalyst firm Johnson Matthey and U.S. specialty chemical maker Lubrizol—didn't have the sales to make the cut this year. They were replaced by Chinese polyurethane juggernaut Wanhua Chemical and U.S. petrochemical maker Westlake Chemical.
Despite the merger between Dow Chemical and DuPont, BASF maintains the top spot in C&EN's Global Top 50. DowDuPont launched in August and didn't have the full-year results to overtake the German chemical giant. BASF is hardly sitting still itself. The company is mulling its largest-ever investment: a $10 billion integrated chemical complex in Guangdong, China, that would start coming on-line in 2026. BASF also has been making acquisitions. It is spending $9 billion on seed and agricultural chemical businesses from Bayer, which needed to dispose of them to get its acquisition of Monsanto past regulators. The purchase will give BASF about $10 billion in total ag sales and mark its entry into the seed business. BASF is also buying Solvay's nylon business for $1.9 billion. Marking an exit from the energy sector, BASF plans to merge its Wintershall oil and gas businesses with German rival DEA. BASF also made a change at the top. In May, Kurt Bock, BASF's leader throughout most of the 2010s, passed the baton to Martin Brudermüller, a Ph.D. chemist who continues to serve as BASF's chief technology officer.
DowDuPont was born last August, a full 20 months after Dow Chemical and DuPont signed their merger agreement. Because the company's sales figure reflects results from Dow for a full year but from DuPont only since September, it hasn't knocked BASF out of the top spot. A full year of results for 2018 might change that when C&EN's next Global Top 50 survey drops a year from now. If all goes according to management's plan, 2018 should be the only year we know DowDuPont as a company. It is scheduled to break into three companies, all of which should comfortably make the ranking, in 2019. One will be a materials science company with about $44 billion in annual sales. It will bear the Dow name and be led by longtime Dow executive Jim Fitterling. Except for some packaging plastics businesses from the old DuPont, this company will be made up mostly of former Dow businesses. A new DuPont, constructed with former DuPont businesses plus electronic and other assorted specialty materials operations from Dow, will have $21 billion in sales. Agricultural chemicals and seeds from both companies will be the nucleus of a new firm with $14 billion in revenues, Corteva Agriscience.
The past few months have been tough for China's largest chemical producer. In May, an explosion in a benzene tank at the Secco Petrochemical facility in Shanghai killed six contract workers who were performing repairs. Sinopec had taken over the facility from partner BP for $1.7 billion just last year. Meanwhile, the Chinese push to improve air quality by switching from coal to natural gas heating led to a temporary natural gas shortage last winter, snarling chemical production in the country. However, 2017 was a good year for the company. It saw a 32% increase in sales. In a positive development for the firm, its Nanjing-based joint venture with BASF plans to double capacity for neopentyl glycol.
SABIC aspires to go deeper into specialty chemicals as a way to move beyond making bulk petrochemicals in its oil- and gas-rich home base of Saudi Arabia. This was the justification for its purchase of engineering polymer maker GE Plastics a decade ago. It was also the impetus behind SABIC's purchase of a 25% stakein the Swiss specialty chemical maker Clariant, 50th on this list, earlier this year for $2.4 billion. The two firms were already partners in the chemical process firm Scientific Design. SABIC's petrochemical business is diversifying geographically. It signed an agreement with ExxonMobil to build a massive petrochemical complex near Corpus Christi, Texas. And with Saudi national oil company Saudi Aramco, SABIC plans a crude-oil-to-chemicals plant that would have 9 million metric tons per year of output. Ties between the two Saudi firms may deepen: Saudi Aramco recently said it wants to buy a stake in SABIC.
Ineos and its founder, the energetic billionaire Jim Ratcliffe, are helping resuscitate the European petrochemical industry, which was rendered nearly irrelevant by the cheap shale-derived feedstocks available to U.S. petrochemical makers. Ineos's solution was to haul U.S. ethane to Europe on purpose-built ships. Those raw materials have been feeding Ineos's ethylene crackers in Scotland and Norway. Now Ineos plans to expand those plants and spend an additional $3 billion on a new European propane dehydrogenation plant and the first ethylene cracker the continent has seen in a generation. The British company is also building a vinyl acetate plant in Europe. Ineos is investing in the U.S. too. It plans an ethylene oxide and derivatives complex and an α-olefins plant, both on the Gulf Coast.
Formosa Plastics, an affiliate of Formosa Petrochemical, appears to be moving forward on a $9.4 billion ethylene cracker complex, dubbed the Sunshine Project, in Louisiana. The Taiwanese company has purchased a 1,000-hectare tract along the Mississippi River in St. James Parish, La. Construction may begin next year and peak at 8,000 construction workers engaged at site. At its Taiwan home base, Formosa continues to battle environmental activists and farmers who live near its facilities. The company is mulling building a water desalination plant at its giant Mailiao complex to assuage concerns that it is using too much freshwater from the area.
ExxonMobil is always working on at least one major petrochemical project. Soon the company could be juggling two. ExxonMobil has just put the final touches on a new ethylene cracker in Baytown, Texas. Now it is advancing a $10 billion complex a bit farther down the coast in San Patricio County, Texas, near Corpus Christi. It has signed a joint-venture agreement with SABIC for the project, and construction will commence once the environmental permits are in. It is also evaluating a project in Guangdong, China, that would feature an ethylene cracker and downstream derivatives.
Basell's expensive purchase of Lyondell Chemical on the eve of the financial crisis in 2007 forced the newly minted LyondellBasell Industries into bankruptcy a year later. The company has been fiscally conservative ever since it emerged from Chapter 11 in 2010. Instead of building multi-billion-dollar U.S. crackers as its rivals did, it has opted for cheaper, incremental expansions. This frugality has garnered it much admiration in the financial community. But under Bob Patel, who took over as CEO in 2015, the company has been investing more assertively. It is spending $2.4 billion to build the world's largest propylene oxide and tert-butyl alcohol facility, in Channelview, Texas. And LyondellBasell is back on the acquisition path with the purchase of plastics compounder A. Schulman for $2.25 billion. That deal may prove to be small potatoes compared to what the company is considering next. In an acquisition that would be its largest since bankruptcy, LyondellBasell is negotiating to buy a majority stake in the Brazilian petrochemical maker Braskem, number 19 in this ranking. The purchase price could exceed $10 billion.
Mitsubishi Chemical's industrial gas arm, Taiyo Nippon Sanso, has been the firm's most active division. The gas company is poised to enter the European market through the purchase of Praxair's European gas business for $6 billion. The Praxair business, with annual sales of $1.5 billion, is part of a package of several divestitures being made so Linde can win European Commission approval for its merger with Praxair. This isn't the first time Taiyo Nippon Sanso made such a purchase. In 2016, its U.S. affiliate Matheson Tri-Gas bought air-separation and other plants in the U.S. that regulators forced Air Liquide to divest during its takeover of Airgas.
As its electronic and battery materials business segment grows, LG Chem is planning a massive R&D expansion. By the turn of the next decade, it wants to boost its R&D headcount by 800, to 6,300 people. It is also launching an innovation contest promising grants of up to $150,000 to scientists working in materials, biotechnology, and other fields. On the capital spending front, LG and China's Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt are investing $450 million to set up a pair of Chinese joint ventures making cathode materials for electric vehicle batteries.
Air Liquide is about to be knocked off its perch as the world's largest industrial gas maker. Rival Linde is merging with U.S. leader Praxair, and combined they should edge out the French firm. Air Liquide continues to grow even without major acquisitions. Earlier this year, the company started up biomethane plants in the U.S., France, and the U.K., doubling capacity for the fuel, which it extracts from landfills and other sources of waste. It has also invested more than $10 million in the Chinese start-up STNE, which operates a fleet of 500 hydrogen-powered delivery trucks.
The Indian conglomerate is probably best known for operating the world's largest refinery in Jamnagar, India; being India's largest petrochemical maker; and even for running telecommunications operations and supermarkets. In a first for the region, the company has begun importing ethane from the U.S. in six new ships and is using this ethane to feed three Indian ethylene crackers. And through its recent purchase of Kemrock Industries, the company is now eyeing another world to conquer: carbon fiber composites.
DuPont merged with Dow Chemical to become DowDuPont last August, but it had enough sales all by itself for eight months to make C&EN's ranking one last time. Eventually, the name DuPont will emblazon a new Wilmington, Del.-based chemical company made up mostly of old DuPont businesses, such as food ingredients and construction materials. It will also have a few gems from Dow, such as electronic materials and construction products. In May, DowDuPont CEO Ed Breen, speaking in front of an audience in New York City, gave some clues about how this new company will be run. It will shun "moon shot" R&D projects, deeply encoded in the DNA of the old DuPont, in favor of smaller-scale programs. It will trim 5–10% of its portfolio. Foreshadowing a potential future breakup, he reminded the audience that the new DuPont will consist of four businesses that could stand alone as separate companies.
Germany's Linde is close to becoming the largest industrial gas maker in the world with its merger with Praxair. Combined, the firms generated about $28.4 billion in sales for 2017, nearly $6 billion more than the current leader, Air Liquide. But the German and French gas giants may end up a bit closer in size than that. Regulators want Linde to slough off some assets for competition reasons. Praxair has inked an agreement to sell its European business, which had $1.5 billion in annual sales, to Taiyo Nippon Sanso. Linde also signed a deal under which the private equity firm CVC Capital Partners and the German industrial gas maker Messer will buy Linde's U.S. gas business and some of its South American assets for $3.3 billion.
Toray Industries continues to invest big in its core carbon fiber composites business. It is paying $1.15 billion for TenCate Advanced Composites, which specializes in carbon fiber prepreg—carbon fiber impregnated with resin—for the production of small and medium aircraft. However, the Japanese firm has recently been hit by scandal. Late last year, the company fessed up to faking quality-control measurements on out-of-spec industrial fiber. Toray claims that it missed quality specifications by an insignificant amount.
After rejecting a $28 billion takeover offer from paint rival PPG Industries, AkzoNobel management promised to spin off its specialty chemical unit, which analysts said would raise between $8 billion and $12 billion. Akzo exceeded these expectations, inking an agreement in March to sell the business to the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm, for $12.5 billion. The specialty chemical business generated $5.6 billion in sales in 2017, which wouldn't have been enough to make C&EN's ranking on its own. Akzo also did what many observers expected it to: It attempted to negotiate the purchase of Axalta Coating Systems, DuPont's former paint business. Axalta abandoned those talks to focus on overtures from Nippon Paint, which likewise yielded no deal.
As part of a restructuring, Evonik Industries is cutting 1,000 jobs—mostly in administration and sales and much of them in its home country of Germany. The company aims to save $230 million annually. Evonik is also exploring the sale of its methacrylates unit, which isn't growing at the pace of other businesses, such as animal nutrition and specialty additives. The company has been spending generously on expansion. It will spend nearly $500 million on a plant in Marl, Germany, for nylon 12 and precursors by 2021. It is also laying out $120 million to build a precipitated silica plant in Charleston, S.C., and $50 million to expand fumed silica capacity in Antwerp, Belgium. The company completed the $3.8 billion purchase of Air Products' specialty chemical business, its largest deal ever, in 2017.
Covestro's last tie to its former parent, Bayer, is nearly severed: Bayer's ownership stake in Covestro is down to 6.8%. Covestro also has a new CEO. Former chief commercial officer Markus Steilemann took the helm last month from Patrick Thomas, who is soon to be nonexecutive chair of Johnson Matthey. Otherwise, Covestro has been rolling out modest investments. The company is spending about $235 million to expand methylene diphenyl diisocyanate capacity and build a new chlorine plant in Tarragona, Spain. For that new plant, the German company is installing an oxygen-depolarized cathode that will allow it to make chlorine and caustic soda without coproduct hydrogen, saving energy.
Brazil's petrochemical giant may soon cease to exist as an independent company. LyondellBasell Industries is negotiating a purchase of a majority stake in the firm from Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht. A report in Brazil suggests that the parties may come to terms on a deal in October and that the transaction may include Braskem's minority shareholder, state oil company Petrobras. Braskem was founded in 2002 following a government auction of a plant in Camaçari, Brazil. It went on to consolidate almost the entire Brazilian petrochemical industry over the following decade. It also expanded overseas, building a cracker complex in Mexico and buying out polypropylene businesses from Dow Chemical and Sunoco. However, a massive corruption scandal ensnared the company and its owners, who are now seeking a sale to raise money.
PPG Industries' $28 billion offer last year to acquire AkzoNobel was rejected, and a hostile takeover was impossible given the peculiarities of Akzo's corporate structure. To date, PPG hasn't mounted another offensive against its Dutch rival, falling back instead to the peacetime duties of running its businesses and distributing cash to shareholders. In a high-tech development, it is partnering with the start-up SiNode Systems to manufacture high-energy anode materials for lithium-ion batteries. The silicon-graphene materials make for higher-capacity, faster-charging batteries, the partners say.
The past year has seen Sumitomo Chemical rack up many small acquisitions. It purchased a 20% stake in the Japanese biotech firm Bonac, which is developing nucleic acid drug candidates. In agriculture, it bought Kyowa Hakko Bio's plant growth regulator business. Sumitomo also acquired control of Botanical Resources Australia, a Tasmanian firm that extracts pyrethrins, used as organic insecticides, from Dalmatian chrysanthemum. In an organic growth initiative of its own, Sumitomo is spending $150 million to establish a semiconductor materials facility in Changzhou, China.
The chemical arm of the South Korean conglomerate Lotte has nearly completed the most ambitious U.S. project ever undertaken by a Korean chemical firm. The company's $3 billion ethylene joint venture with Westlake Chemical in Lake Charles, La., is scheduled to start up during the first half of next year. The timing of the facility is just as the companies predicted when they broke ground in June 2016. Lotte is also constructing its own ethylene glycol plant in Lake Charles.
Shin-Etsu Chemical, like many Japanese chemical firms, had an exceptional year in 2017. Its profits shot up by more than 40%, and sales rose 17%. Shin-Etsu credited strong performance in polyvinyl chloride and electronic materials. Looking for more growth, Shin-Etsu is investing $175 million to expand cellulose derivatives in Japan and Germany. It will also lay out $1.5 billion to boost vinyls in Plaquemine, La. (see story page 15).
In recent years, Solvay has divested some of its traditional chemical businesses, like vinyls and cellulose acetate, in favor of specialty chemicals. In the latest such move, the Belgian company inked an agreement to sell its nylon 6,6 business to BASF for $1.9 billion. The European Commission is investigating that deal because of fears over BASF's resulting large market share in engineering polymers. The transition to specialties also spurred a reorganization of R&D. The company is cutting about 600 jobs, though it won't say how many are scientists. It is also transferring some 500 employees from Paris and Aubervilliers, France, to Lyon, France, and Brussels.
Mitsui Chemicals' dental materials business bit back earlier this year. Because of disappointing sales, Mitsui wrote off $130 million from the value of the unit, which it bought from the German firm Heraeus in 2013 for $576 million. Undeterred, Mitsui bought a 30% stake in B9Creations, which makes three-dimensional printers used in the jewelry industry. Mitsui wants to repurpose the machines for dental materials. Separately, the Japanese company is building a new line in Ohio for an olefinic thermoplastic elastomer. It also licensed the rights to quinofumelin—a fungicide used on fruit, vegetables, oilseeds, and rice—to Bayer.
Asian firms LG Chem and Sinopec more than doubled capital spending in 2017.
|Chemical capital spending||Chemical R&D spending|
|2017($ millions)||% change from 2016||% of chemical sales||2017($ millions)||% change from 2016||% of chemical sales|
|Air Products & Chemicals||1,040||-1.5||12.7||58||-56.2||0.7|
Figures are for companies on the Global Top 50 table reporting capital and/or R&D expenditures. a Prior-year figures are for Dow Chemical. b Figures are through Aug. 31, 2017, when the company merged with Dow Chemical to form DowDuPont. na = not available.
With Linde's merger with Praxair nearing approval, this is likely to be Praxair's final appearance in the C&EN ranking. The industrial gas company was a part of a bigger firm once before. It was a division of Union Carbide, then a chemical conglomerate, before being spun off in 1992. Shareholders will remember the independent Praxair for delivering strong returns year in and year out. And its 2017 operating profit margin, among the largest in the Global Top 50, shows that Praxair is going out at the peak of its game.
The Norwegian fertilizer giant has been growing like gangbusters in recent years and is still in expansion mode. It opened a joint-venture ammonia plant with BASF in Freeport, Texas, in April. A month later, it completed the purchase, for $255 million, of a nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers complex in Cubatão, Brazil. It isn't all about big fertilizer plants for Yara. Last year, it purchased Agronomic Technology, which sells digital farming software developed at Cornell University.
Lanxess's board must like the job its CEO Matthias Zachert has been doing for the past four years because it re-upped his contract until April 1, 2024. The company is absorbing brominated flame retardants maker Chemtura, which it purchased last year for $2.5 billion. Lanxess now aims to save $120 million annually at Chemtura by reducing costs. In a small acquisition meant to augment what it acquired with Chemtura, Lanxess bought Solvay's U.S. business in phosphorus chemicals for agrochemicals and flame retardants. The company is also nibbling at the booming market for lithium, used in batteries. Standard Lithium is paying $3 million for access to lithium in the Arkansas brine from which Lanxess extracts bromine.
Bayer closed its $66 billion purchase of Monsanto last month, nearly two years after it was originally unveiled. After a long review, antitrust regulators finally approved the acquisition—provided that Bayer sell $9 billion in seed and crop protection chemical operations to BASF. Bayer's first major decision after the acquisition was getting rid of the Monsanto name, much demonized among activists who are down on genetically modified organisms. To help pay for Monsanto, Bayer continues to reduce its stake in Covestro, its former materials science business. Bayer has raised more than $10.6 billion in sales of Covestro stock so far.
It seems that every year brings heavy investment from DSM in nutrition. Late last year, the Dutch company agreed to buy an Amyris plant in Brazil that makes the biobased chemical building block farnesene for $96 million. The two firms had collaborated since earlier in 2017 with the goal of developing a fermentation route to vitamin A. DSM also invested $50 million in Amyris. More recently, DSM acquired a 50% stake in Mixfit, a start-up that analyzes a person's diet and lifestyle to create personalized beverages containing vitamins and minerals.
Asahi Kasei has been investing heavily in lithium-ion batteries and high-end materials. Earlier this year, the Japanese firm decided to spend about $70 million to expand its battery separator plants in Shiga, Japan, and North Carolina. Separately, Asahi Kasei is doubling production of synthetic suede in Japan, and it just announced a $1 billion deal to acquire Sage Automotive Interiors, a large suede customer. And with ChemChina subsidiary China National Bluestar, it is building a 30,000-metric-ton-per-year plant for the engineering polymer polyphenylene ether in Nantong, China.
Eastman Chemical has long had a core made of polyester. And while the company no longer makes polyethylene terephthalate, the company still invests in specialty polyesters. In May, Eastman wrapped up an expansion at its flagship complex in Kingsport, Tenn., for its Tritan copolyester. The product has been taking off in recent years as a bisphenol A-free substitute for polycarbonate. Eastman is also expanding capacity for its Eastar, Spectar, and Aspira copolyesters at the site by 25% and boosting output for its copolyester raw material cyclohexanedimethanol.
All eyes were on an Arkema plant in Crosby, Texas, in August after Tropical Storm Harvey stalled over the Houston area, dumping more than 50 cm of rain. A warehouse loaded with Arkema organic peroxides lost power and backup power. The reactive organic peroxides must be kept refrigerated. The canisters started to burst into flames, fortunately resulting in only minor injuries. It hasn't all been bad news for Arkema. The company is spending $30 million to build a nylon 12 plant in Changshu, China. It's also expanding a polyvinylidene fluoride plant in Calvert City, Ky.
ChemChina completed its purchase of Syngenta in mid-2017 with a promise to let it operate independently. One subsequent loose end was the sale, for $490 million, to Australia's Nufarm of a portfolio of 50 off-patent pesticides and other products from Syngenta and Adama, ChemChina's existing crop protection business. The European Commission required the divestitures before it allowed the deal to go through. Keeping with the trend of agrochemical companies plunging into digital farming, Syngenta acquired FarmShots, a start-up that allows farmers to use satellite images to assess plant health.
Back in 2011, Chevron Phillips Chemical was the first company in more than a decade to announce a new ethylene cracker complex on the U.S. Gulf Coast, part of a $6 billion investment that also included two polyethylene plants. More than a dozen companies eventually followed with U.S. ethylene projects of their own. Chevron Phillips's polyethylene plants came onstream last year, and the company fired up its cracker in March. While the firm was an early shale-gas bull, its new CEO, Mark Lashier, is cautious. He is considering another project but is worried about rising construction costs in the U.S. due to all the activity.
Borealis, a Vienna, Austria-based petrochemical maker controlled by the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund Mubadala Investment, is experiencing a growth spurt. With Abu Dhabi National Oil, it is planning a new ethylene cracker and derivatives units at the two firms' existing Borouge joint venture in Ruwais, Abu Dhabi. The site's petrochemical output will triple to 14.4 million metric tons by 2025. Borouge already has annual sales of nearly $4 billion. Borealis is also mulling an ethylene cracker and polyethylene complex in Kazakhstan with local partners and is moving forward with a Texas ethylene project with sister company Nova Chemicals and French oil company Total.
Over the past decade, Indorama has grown from an obscure Thai polyester producer to one of the Global Top 50 through acquisition, expansion, and creative combinations of those two. Its most recent deal illustrates this. The company bought a 50% interest in an idle polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plant in Egypt. It is restarting the plant, using raw material purified terephthalic acid from a plant that it bought last year in Portugal. Earlier this year, Indorama and competitors Far Eastern New Century and Alpek teamed up to buy a PET plant under construction in Corpus Christi, Texas, from the bankrupt M&G Chemicals for $1.1 billion. And last fall it inked a deal to purchase DuPont Teijin Films, which makes specialty PET and polyethylene naphthalate films.
SK Innovation has a knack for buying businesses from Dow Chemical. Late last year, the Korean petrochemical maker, through its SK Global Chemical subsidiary, agreed to buy the Saran polyvinylidene chloride business, a longtime Dow brand. SK had previously inked an agreement to purchase Dow's ethylene acrylic acid polymer unit to ease regulatory approval of Dow's merger with DuPont.
Huntsman Corp. lost its founder earlier this year with the death of Jon M. Huntsman Sr. at age 80. He established Huntsman Corp. in 1982 and made its first major purchase, a Shell polystyrene plant in Belpre, Ohio, in 1983. He would go on to build one of the world's largest chemical companies through similar purchases of businesses from large firms looking to trim their portfolios. Huntsman's most important buys were Texaco Chemical and ICI's polyurethane, titanium dioxide, and petrochemical businesses. A mutiny of large Clariant shareholders prevented another milestone Huntsman deal. Last fall, Huntsman and Clariant had to cancel their merger of equals, which would have created a $14.7 billion specialty chemical powerhouse.
While industrial gas competitors such as Linde and Air Liquide have been inking big-ticket mergers, Air Products' strategy has been to crack the Chinese market. It attempted a $1.5 billion takeover of Yingde Gases, one of China's leading players, in December 2016 but lost out to the Hong Kong-based private equity firm PAG. After that, Air Products invested $500 million in a coal-to-chemicals joint venture with Lu'An Mining in Shanxi, the heart of China's coal country. It has a 60% stake in the partnership and will be responsible for the production of synthesis gas for making chemicals and fuels. Air Products made an even bigger Chinese commitment last November, signing with Yankuang Group to build a $3.5 billion coal gasification plant in Yulin, China.
The strong hurricane season last year, which included Houston-pummeling Harvey, hampered Ecolab's energy, paper, and water treatment chemical business. Despite this, the company was able to score a 6% improvement in sales in 2017. Ecolab is looking to grow in chemicals. Last October, it agreed to acquire Georgia-Pacific's paper chemicals unit, which has annual sales of more than $40 million.
Houston-based Westlake Chemical rocketed into the Global Top 50 with its $3.8 billion purchase of rival Axiall in 2016. The deal created the second-largest polyvinyl chloride maker and the third-largest chlor-alkali player in North America. Investing in the shale gas boom, Westlake and South Korea's Lotte are building an ethylene cracker in Lake Charles, La. Westlake has also been expanding vinyl capacity in the U.S. and Europe.
Anyone looking for an example of the vibrancy of the Chinese economy can cite Wanhua Chemical. The company's small methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI) plant in Yantai, China, wasn't producing at full capacity until 1995. Now Wanhua is the largest producer of the polyurethane raw material in the world, ahead of Western competitors such as BASF, Covestro, Dow Chemical, and Huntsman. The company has branched into other isocyanates as well as polyols, another polyurethane raw material. With a plan to spend $1.1 billion to establish an MDI plant in Louisiana, Wanhua may bring its vibrancy to the U.S.
Early on, Sasol had headaches and delays at its massive Lake Charles, La., petrochemical project. But for the past year or more, construction has been going smoothly. As of the end of 2017, it was 81% complete, and the company had spent $8.8 billion of the $11.1 billion project budget. Sasol hopes to have the first feedstock trickling through the facility later this year. By 2022, it should be earning the company $1.3 billion a year in pre-tax profits. Separately, Gemini, a high-density polyethylene joint venture in La Porte, Texas, between Sasol and Ineos, made its first sales late last year.
Mosaic is seeing its fortunes start to turn around in the slumping fertilizer industry. After a 20% drop in sales in 2016, Mosaic's turnover increased 3% last year, and profits jumped 7%. Earlier this year, the company completed the purchase of the fertilizer business of the Brazilian mining firm Vale for $2.5 billion. To get easier access to the Brazilian operations as well as its extensive Florida phosphate mine, the company is now moving its corporate headquarters from Plymouth, Minn., to Hillsborough County, Fla.
PTT's project to build an ethylene cracker complex in Belmont, Ohio, gained some momentum in January when South Korea's Daelim signed on as the Thai petrochemical maker's partner. The companies are already acquiring land. They envision a 1.5 million-metric-ton-per-year cracker, which is 500,000 metric tons more than PTT originally planned when it unveiled the project in 2015. Separately, with Japan's Kuraray and Sumitomo Corp., PTT is building plants to make styrenic block copolymers and nylon 9T in Thailand.
Tosoh shattered company records last year with a 11% increase in sales and a 17% improvement in profits. In a letter to shareholders, President Toshinori Yamamoto credited reduced debt levels, improvement in its commodity chemicals business, and strong performance in Asian markets. Tosoh, Asia's largest integrated chlor-alkali maker, is also investing heavily in specialties. In connection with this, it is renovating three of its eight laboratories to better foster innovation.
DIC is keeping up with the trend of food companies shunning artificial ingredients, including color. Looking to further develop a business in natural food coloring, it invested close to $6 million in Fermentalg, a French specialist in algae for nutrition and health markets. In another biobased chemical development, DIC is partnering with the natural building block start-up Checkerspot on new polyols for coatings, inks, and other markets.
Hanwha's petrochemical and refining joint venture with French oil giant Total, Hanwha Total Petrochemical, will spend $300 million to expand polyethylene capacity in Daesan, South Korea, by 50%. The joint venture also has a project to get the site ready for importation of cheap propane feedstock from abroad.
This may be the era of the megamerger, but one proposed deal, Clariant's combination with Huntsman, was canceled last November. Clariant and Huntsman would have combined for $14.7 billion in sales. However, Clariant investor White Tale Holdings objected to the transaction. It argued that Clariant should become more of a specialty chemical maker rather than link up with Huntsman, which has a lot of commodity chemicals in its portfolio. Earlier this year, White Tale and another major shareholder, 40 North, sold out to Saudi Arabia's SABIC, which paid $2.4 billion for a 25% stake in Clariant.
CORRECTION: This story was updated on July 31, 2018, to correctly characterize the combination of Linde and Praxair. It is a merger of equals, not an acquisition of Praxair by Linde. In addition, Praxair, not Linde, is selling Praxair's European industrial gas business to Taiyo Nippon Sanso.