As site director for the Wacker Group's Charleston, Tennessee, chemical plant, Mary Beth Hudson oversees the largest single private investment in a manufacturing plant ever made in Tennessee.
In 2019, the $2.5 billion investment by Wacker in Bradley County got even bigger with a $150 million expansion that added another 50 jobs and an entirely new product line.
Hudson, a chemist and engineer who has been with Wacker for 21 years, came to Tennessee in 2016 from her native Kentucky, where she helped head Wacker's polymer plant in Calvert City. In Charleston, Hudson has had plenty of challenges during her three-and-a-half years in the polysilicon production facility. She has faced both engineering and political battles as Wacker has adjusted its production process and its business model to fit mechanical and market needs.
Within six months of her arrival in Charleston, Hudson was forced to handle an explosion that resulted in a plant worker, a firefighter, four deputies and seven local residents being treated by local hospitals. An investigation by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation determined the blast sent 1,784 pounds of hydrochloric acid into the air. Part of the Wacker plant had to be rebuilt and new systems put in place before polysilicon production could resume.
An even bigger threat to the plant came when U.S.-China trade battles resulted in import tariffs and duties being put on solar panels and polysilicon products. The development effectively shut the Charleston-made product out of China. At the time, Wacker was building the Charleston plant in large measure to help serve the growing China market without locating the plant in China, where intellectual property and production process was less protected.
"We had to reorient this facility, but Wacker is committed to taking the long view and investing not just for the next quarter but for years in the future," says Hudson, noting the facility is now targeting the growing semiconductor industry.
Suppliers to Wacker take quartz and produce metallurgical grade-silicon, which is roughly 97% to 98% pure. At the Charleston plant, Wacker purifies that to ultra-high purity level necessary for the product to be used in the solar and semiconductor industry. Wacker's process results in a ultra-high purity polysilicon product with imperfections measured in parts per trillion.
On the 550-acre complex just off Interstate 75 in northern Bradley County, Wacker has plenty of room to add other chemical lines that complement its operations. The German chemical maker broadened its product line this year by adding production of pyrogenic silica using one of the byproducts from its polysilicon operations.
Worldwide, consumption of pyrogenic silica totals more than 250,000 tons a year and Wacker is one of only a handful of suppliers for the product. The new Charleston plant has a production capacity of 13,000 metric tons. Wacker's overall staff is up to 670 workers.
Mary Beth Hudson
* Job: Vice president of Wacker Polysilicon Division NCA and site manager of the Wacker facility in Charleston, Tennessee* Influence: The Kentucky native has headed the largest private manufacturing investment ever in Tennessee for the past three and a half years and in 2019 she led the completion of the $150 million HDK plant, adding 150 jobs making pyrogenic silica.* Just for fun: Hudson and her husband enjoy golfing, hiking and other entertainment and outdoor activities in Chattanooga.