maandag 11 juni 2018

How DSM made a big leap forward

After DSM had developed into a chemical company in the 1950s and 1960s and the mines had been closed for good, things such as rising labor costs, safety and environmental pollution became increasingly important at today’s Chemelot. In addition, profitability was under pressure. That’s how DSM entered the 1970s.

Acrylonitrile plant

As in those days – the 1970s – profitability was under pressure, research budgets, particularly those for fundamental research, were slashed – partly motivated by the lysine debacle (read “How DSM developed into a chemical company”), but also in line with the trend in the chemical industry.

Demand-driven diversification
The DSM management decided on a big leap forward on the foundation of the chemical activities in the 1950s and 1960s. In this context, DSM aimed at demand-driven diversification through acquisition of technology or companies. From now on, market developments were taken into account in the decision to build a production facility.
DSM started with the production of acrylonitrile (CAN, feedstock for acryl fibers, 1969) and the plastics polyvinyl chloride (PVC, 1972), polypropylene (PP, 1977), and acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS, 1974). The plants were built on the basis of purchased technology that was improved by DSM. Sales of plastics took a great flight, and therefore two new crackers were built in the 1970s (naphtha crackers 3 and 4) to supply the raw material (ethylene and propylene).
In 1976, the name of the Central Laboratory was changed into CRO (Corporate Research and Patents department), which in 1985 became DSM Research. Today, this is called Brightlands Chemelot Campus.

Fine chemicals
The lysine research of the ‘60s became the basis for DSM’s activities in fine chemicals. These products are used in, for instance, food ingredients, medicines, and agricultural chemicals. Fine chemicals are somewhere in between special products (small production facilities for several products) and bulk chemicals (large plants for a single product). This development resulted in the production of products such as benzaldehyde (for flavors, 1972), phenylglycine (an amino acid used in medicines, 1972), pyridine (from acrylonitrile, for agricultural chemicals, 1977), alpha-picoline (for agricultural chemicals, 1977) and amino acids (initially D-valine, 1988). Use was also made of biotechnology, which means that enzymes were applied as catalysts for chemical processes.
In spite of these positive developments, fine chemicals remained a niche in DSM’s sales. The production of alpha-picoline was terminated in 2010.

Water purification
The research conducted in the 1970s also focused on the environment, more specifically the effects of the chemical operations on the water quality of the Maas river. Already in the 1960s, DSM had built a waste water purification plant, the Pasveersloot (near Stein). In 1977, a new waste water purification plant (near Meers) was commissioned. The microbiological research that had led to this plant formed the basis for further biotechnological research.

In addition, measures were taken to reduce the brown plume rising up above the site, which was visible from miles away. The brown color was caused by nitrogen oxides released in particular from the nitric acid plant. Currently, denox equipment prevents these emissions. Sometimes these plumes can still be seen when a plant is started or stopped. Then the denox equipment is not at the right temperature and a limited amount of nitrogen oxides is released.

Urea and melamine
Corrosion problems triggered the decision to combine urea and melamine production (1970). Two oil crises in the 19070s made it attractive for oil-producing countries to start producing chemicals themselves, in particular urea (as fertilizer). DSM increasingly concentrated on the West European fertilizer market, where hardly any urea was sold. That’s why DSM rather used urea as a raw material for melamine.

The ACN plant is now owned by AnQore, manufacturer of "Smart Materials". AnQore is part of the ChemicalInvest Holding, which is part of the investment company CVC Capital Partners. CVC is also the owner of companies such as Avast (security software), Breitling (watches) and Douglas (perfumery chain).
The PVC plant now belongs to Vynova, a division of ICIG, which specializes in vinyl chlorides, with factories at Tessenderlo, Wilhelmshaven, Mazingarbe, Runcorn, and Chemelot. ICIG (International Chemical Investors Group) is a Luxembourg-German industrial investment company, also the owner of Enka (previously AkzoNobel).
The PP plant is owned by the Saudi company SABIC, one of the largest chemical companies in the world. Last year, the former Minister of Economic Affairs, Henk Kamp opened SABIC’s pilot plant for polypropylene at Brightlands Chemelot Campus. This shows that a product that has been produced since 1977 still requires research.
The ABS plant was sold to BASF in 1999; a few years later production was terminated.

Read also “How it started underground”, “The first transition: from coal to chemicals” and “When it went darker than in a mine shaft”.
This is a repost of my (Dutch) January 15, 2018 post.
Read my May 20, 2013 blog post about the reason why of my English reposts.