Wacker shifts focus, prepares for more growth in Charleston, Tennessee

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / The crushing building at the Wacker polysilicon plant in Charleston, Tennessee is part of the $2.6 billion complex on 550 acres. The Wacker plant is the largest single manufacturing investment ever in Southeast Tennessee.
Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / The crushing building at the Wacker polysilicon plant in Charleston, Tennessee is part of the $2.6 billion complex on 550 acres. The Wacker plant is the largest single manufacturing investment ever in Southeast Tennessee.

CHARLESTON, Tennessee - When Wacker Chemical Co. picked a riverfront site in East Tennessee to build its biggest manufacturing complex outside of Germany a decade ago, the German chemical manufacturer was banking on polysilicon sales to serve the growing global solar energy market.

But when a trade war with China led to tariffs and other trade barriers blocking Wacker from finding its place in the sun, the company shifted markets for its Tennessee production to the even faster-growing computer chip market.

After recovering from a couple of explosions in 2017 that idled plant operations here for nearly eight months, Wacker has deployed its sprawling $2.5 billion plant on the Hiwassee River to help meet the growing polysilicon demand in the semiconductor industry.

By converting silica metals from solids to gas and removing any impurities before taking the silica back to its natural solid state again, Wacker turns the silica rocks into hyper pure silica used in semiconductors and high-efficiency solar cells.

In 2019, Wacker added a $150 million production line to use some of the byproducts of its main plant to produce Pyrogenic silica, which is used in everything from lipstick and toothpaste to paints, fiberglass and Silicone elastomers.

The refocus and expansion is part of Wacker's ongoing strategy to more fully develop the 550-acre site to serve a variety of markets. Wacker's investment here represents the largest single manufacturing investment ever in Southeast Tennessee and company officials say they are eager to capitalize on the property and its technology to produce even more chemical compounds.

"Our site is large and laid out to grow," Wacker Site Director Ken Collins said during a recent tour of the facility.

At a similar-sized Wacker chemical plant in Burghausen, Germany, there are over 10,000 employees making a variety of products.

"The vision for Charleston is that over the years to be more like the Burghausen site," Collins said.

David Wilhoit, president and CEO, Wacker Chemical Corporation of America, spent four months at the Wacker Tennessee site last year as Wacker transitioned to a multi-divisional site.

"One of the incredible things about Wacker is the diversity of markets that we are in around the world," Wilhoit told the Times Free Press.

Wacker officials remain coy about what other products and processes it may add in Charleston. But company officials recently met with Bob Rolfe, commissioner for Tennessee's Department of Economic and Community Development, to talk about future growth prospects for the Wacker facility.

Wacker supplies polysilicon and other ingredients used in over half of all semiconductors in the world. But Wacker also supplies a variety of other chemical compounds used in a host of other industries.

So even though demand for polysilicon in the solar industry fell short of what Wacker projected when the Tennesee plant was conceived, Wacker has not only not backed down on its investment - it's doubling down with plans for more growth.

When Wacker began production in 2016 with a production capability of 20,000 metric tons of hyperpure polysilicon a year, Wacker Chairman Peter-Alexander Wacker said the plant would help bring Silicon Valley to the Tennessee Valley. Polysilicon is a key ingredient in the solar panels that turn sunlight into electricity on solar panels being erected on rooftops and in solar farms across the globe.

But most of the solar panels are made in China and tariffs imposed against China undermined Wacker's sales to China from its Tennessee plant. Wacker is still able to sell polysilicon to Chinese solar manufacturers from Germany, but its Charleston plant was forced to pivot to the semi-conductor industry when the solar market failed to materialize.

The approach taken by the German chemical company over the past decade stands in contrast with one of America's biggest polysilicon makers, Hemlock , which decided in 2013 to abandon a $343 million plant built in Clarksville, Tenn., after the United States and China were unable to resolve trade differences over solar panels and their ingredients. When China imposed a 57 percent tariff on U.S. polysilicon, Hemlock laid off roughly 500 workers before any product had even been produced.

"Dr. (Peter-Alexander) Wacker and other officials have told us they like to think in 100-year horizons and they made a very determined, long-term analysis and decided they were here to stay," said Doug Berry, vice president of economic development for the Cleveland/Bradley County Chamber of Commerce who has worked with Wacker since 2009.

That long-term vision also led Wacker to continue to adapt and grow even when a piston failure nearly five years ago ignited a plant fire, injured 13 workers and shut down production for nearly eight months. Wacker rebuilt the plant and after another chemical explosion in 2020 led to a worker fatality and the injury of four others, the company has focused even more on plant safety and the responsibility of every worker to maintain safe operations.

"The participation and engagement of all of our employees in safety remains a top priority for us," Collins said.

Collins joined Wacker in 2020 after working in the chemical industry for the past 38 years with Proctor and Gamble, International Paper and Arizona Chemical. Collins succeeded Mary Beth Hudson, who after five years heading the Wacker site in Charleston is now overseeing the Smart Factory Institute at the Volkswagen Academy in Chattanooga.

Last fall, Collins said he gave every worker at the Wacker plant a "stop card" to have with them and to raise whenever they think there is a safety concern that warrants shutting down production.

"We tell our employees that this is your authority to stop work if you think there is a safety issue or concern that they are not comfortable with," Collins said. "Just like a referee in a soccer game, you can raise your card and stop things so we can huddle and figure out how we can improve things. I think this has reinforced to everyone the importance of safety as a precondition to everything we do."Wacker's fire department

As a chemical plant producing an array of compounds often at very high temperatures, Wacker employees must be careful to avoid explosions or chemical leaks.

To be ready for nearly any type of disaster, Wacker built and maintains its own on-campus fire department with a staff of 30 veteran firefighters and EMTs. The fire hall built for the emergency response team is one of the biggest at any plant in the Southeast and has operated throughout the life of the plant with a number of specialized fire trucks and ambulances to handle chemical and other fires and disasters.

Across the company, Wacker also has pledged to support the "race to zero" to reduce its carbon emissions by 33% and its power consumption by 50% by 2030 on its way to its goal of zero-carbon emissions by 2050.

Wacker, which currently has about 650 employees at the Charleston plant, is trying to hire at least 50 more. To help train its workforce, Wacker launched the Wacker Institute at Chattanooga State Community College a decade ago.

"We're hiring more people as we diversify our operations so it is an exciting time with the prospect of strong growth in the U.S region and we look forward to growing further in Tennessee," Wilhoit said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340