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Staff photo by Dave Flessner / Wacker Chemical Corp. CEO David Wilhoit, Wacker Silicones President Dr. Robert Gnamm and Wacker Site Manager Mary Beth Hudson, from left, discuss the opening of the new HDK plant

CHARLESTON, Tenn. — The biggest plant investment ever in Tennessee marked its latest addition Wednesday when production began for the first time in America of a new pyrogenic silica product.

The Wacker Group, the Munich, Germany-based chemical giant which opened a $2.5 billion polysilicon plant here in 2016, added an adjacent $150 million facility this week that will use some of the byproducts from the adjcacent polysilicon plant to expand its U.S. sales and add another 50 jobs.

"This plant is the next logical step in making Charleston a fully integrated silicon site in the world's second largest chemical market," Wacker CEO Rudoph Staudigl said.

During a ribbon cutting ceremony, the head of Wacker's silicones business, Dr. Robert Gnann, said the new production site "will be a perfect addition to our polysilicon operations" and help make the company's operations more sustainable and successful in its growing U.S. market.

Wacker already makes its pryogenic silica at four plants in Germany and China under its HDK brand. But the new Charleston plant will meet the growing demand for the chemical at other Wacker plants and other firms that produce everything from toothpaste to silicone rubber.

"Pyrogenic silica look rather unspectacular," Gnann told business and community leaders gathered at the plant Wednesday. "It is a fully white powder, which has an extremely low density and is thus very light weight."

Gnann said the product is completely inert without any heatlh effcts, "which make it suitable for a broad variety of applications, including customer care and food."

Worldwide, consumption of pryogenic 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.

Mary Beth Hudson, the site director for Wacker's 550-acre complex just off of Interstate 75 south of the Hiwassee River, said the new plant will use one of the main byproducts from the polysilicon plant here — tetrachlorosilane.

"Our company is committed to sustainability and this will be an important addition for our facilities here," she said.

Wacker began building its polysilicon plant here to help supply the product to Chinese solar panel makers and other Asia industries. But China trade tariffs imposed in the ongoing dispute with the United States over trade imbalances and intellectual property disputes effectively cut off exports of polysilicon to Asia, at least with existing tariffs.

Wacker is still supplying U.S. manufacturers and the new plant will bring the total staff to about 700 workers.

Wacker has a master plan to use more of its Charleston complex for other chemical production in the future, although there are no immediate pans for any expansion.

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Staff photo by Dave Flessner / Wacker officials lead tour of new HDK chemical plant in Charleston, Tennessee.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee thanked Wacker officials for locating and expanding in Tennessee, which is home to 115 German-based companies that collectively have invested nearly 5.5 billion in the state and employ nearly 17,000 workers.

"Foreign direct investment in our state is life-changing for many Tennesseans who are benefiting from great-paying jobs that are so critical for our state," Lee said. "We want to create an environment where companies from all over the world chose to invest here."

Lee acknowledged that talk of trade wars and the addition of some tariffs threatens such investment, at least in the short run. But he said the global trade imbalance "is something that needed to be addressed and what I am hoping for is some resolution.

"Tennesseans are agile and can adapt to different circumstances,, if they know what those are," Lee said.

To help lure Wacker when it was planning for its U.S. facility nearly a decade ago, Tennessee offered about $100 million of grants and incentives and local government offered $5 million in aid, plus a 50% cut in property tax payments on the massive facility, according to Cleveland Chamber of Commerce Vice President Doug Berry.

"We got back the local investment in less than two years and this has been a tremendous addition to our area," Berry said, noting that Wacker is the largest single taxpayer and one of the biggest employers in the county.

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

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