Wacker's sprawling production plant near Chattanooga has pivoted to providing more polysilicon for semiconductor use than for solar panels, a top executive at the factory said Wednesday.
"Our government has a strong desire to establish a semiconductor supply chain in the U.S. The foundational building block of that supply chain is polysilicon," said Jim Tharp, senior director of operations for polysilicon at the Charleston, Tennessee, plant. "We're very important in making that happen."
When the $2.5 billion Bradley County factory came on line seven years ago, solar panels were eyed as the end product for much of the hyper-pure polysilicon it produces. But with the pandemic and the supply chain chaos it brought, and the U.S. government's response to boost the U.S. semiconductor industry, more of Wacker's product now is directed in that market, Tharp said in an interview.
However, volume of production hasn't increased markedly yet in Charleston because it takes a while for the supply chain to become established, he said.
"We're in that establishment phase," Tharp said. "There has been a lot of new announcements of expansions and new factories in the U.S. Investments are in the works."
The increase in the need for polysilicon is coming, and it's a matter of time until the pipeline is filled out, he said.
"The outlook for 2024 is strong and for the foreseeable future," said the Wacker official, adding the plant is producing about 12,000 metric tons of polysilicon annually in Charleston.
Already, it's estimated polysilicon produced at the local plant goes into semiconductors that are in about a quarter of all electronic devices worldwide, Tharp said. That includes cellphones, TVs, computers and the electronics in automobiles, he said.
The Charleston plant is growing, with the company announcing plans last month to add 20 to 40 more workers at the factory that employs about 800, Tharp said.
David Wilhoit, Wacker's chief executive in America, said in October while the company is hiring, it continues to evaluate market conditions for a large expansion announced over a year ago.
"The economy the way it is, we're looking at customer demand and the right economics," Wilhoit said in an interview.
Wacker announced in July 2022 it planned to invest another $200 million in Charleston and hire 200 more employees at the 550-acre plant site. At the time, the company said it planned to add production of new silicone rubber and sealant.
Earlier this month at Cleveland's PIE Innovation Center, Wilhoit said the company doesn't know what the timing is for the expansion.
In addition to polysilicon, the company manufactures pyrogenic silica, which is in a variety of consumer products ranging from paint to lipstick.
The general slowdown in the economy has effected that business, Tharp said.
"It's still a good market," he said. "Not as strong as in the past."
The company continues to use the Wacker Institute at Chattanooga State Community College to train its chemical operators, Tharp said.
"We provide a lot of training," he said. "It's a great opportunity for someone who wants a career."
The German company is one of the world's biggest makers of polysilicon. In addition to Charleston, the company produces polysilicon at two plants in Germany, Tharp said.