Jim Magill, For the Chronicle
Gulf Coast chemical companies, including those slowed by the oil crash, are responding to the humanitarian needs of the global Covid-19 pandemic and keeping plants running.
The companies are boosting production of the chemicals used in the manufacturing of personal protective equipment used by medical personnel, increasing global production of chemicals used to make hand sanitizer — and in some cases manufacturing the product itself — as well as lending expertise and materials for PPE manufacturing.
The need for hand sanitizer and PPE has grown more acute as the pandemic has caused health care facilities across the country to quickly exhaust existing stockpiles. In some cases, according to a study of health care workers, 20 percent of the facilities had almost no N-95 masks, more than a third were out of face shields and more than 1 in 10 had no hand sanitizer
The focus on humanitarian aid by the region’s chemical industry coincides with a global drop in demand for oil and chemical products while much of the world is shut indoors during the pandemic. Some of the lost demand is being offset by increased demand from the medical industry for plastics and other petrochemical-derived products.
Exxon Mobil, for example, has maximized production of isopropyl alcohol, used to make hand sanitizer and other disinfectants, at its facility in Baton Rouge, one of the largest such plants in the world, said William Ramsey, market development manager for Exxon’s polypropylene unit.
In addition, the company is ramping up production of polypropylene pellets, a building block for plastics used in the production of face shields and medical gowns.
“What’s been exciting is helping to solve these problems with Covid-19 by maximizing the production of isopropyl alcohol and maximizing production of the grades of polypropylene that support these efforts,” Ramsey said.
Exxon Mobil also is supporting efforts to develop and rapidly manufacture face masks and face shields used by the health care industry. In partnership with a coalition of companies, academic institutions and other nonprofit entities headed by the Global Center for Medical Innovation in Atlanta, the company is providing raw materials to 3D-printing manufacturers as well as lending its expertise in materials manufacturing and supply chain management to the enterprise.
The project had produced components for 50,000 face shields as of mid-April, and production facilities are preparing to make 170,000 per day, Ramsey said. They’ll be shipped to hospitals in Atlanta and New York.
As part of the coalition’s efforts to produce the medical face masks, Exxon has donated polypropylene to the Nonwovens Institute at North Carolina State University for use in making the filtration components of the face masks.
“We’re trying to get the production started to where we can make a million filtration cartridges for masks in a month,” Ramsey said.
Like Exxon, Dow Chemical, which operates petrochemical plants throughout the Texas Gulf Coast region, is continuing production at its manufacturing sites despite the reduction in global petrochemical demand.
Dow plants at Freeport, Deer Park, Texas City, Seadrift and La Porte produce chemicals used in the making of plastics such as polyurethane used to make hospital bedding and other medical equipment, said Rich Wells, vice president of operations for the U.S. Gulf Coast. Dow’s Freeport site is the largest integrated chemical manufacturing complex in the Western Hemisphere.
Additionally, Dow has begun producing hand sanitizers at plants around the world that usually only produce the base chemicals, such as isopropyl alcohol, used to make disinfectants and sanitizers.
In March, the company began producing 300 tons per month of hand sanitizer at facilities in Germany.
The company also said it would expand its sanitizer production at U.S. sites in Auburn, Mich., and South Charleston, W.V., as well as plants in Belgium and Brazil.
The Woodlands-based Huntsman Corp. has begun producing hand sanitizer at a manufacturing plant in McIntosh, Ala., for distribution to U.S. health care facilities. The plant typically produces high-performance specialty chemicals used in aerospace and other industries, Huntsman said in a statement.
The company had previously begun producing hydro-alcoholic solution at its manufacturing facilities in Switzerland for use in sanitizing products in a Swiss hospital.
Huntsman said it would donate the first 5-ton shipment of hand sanitizer produced in Alabama to the Huntsman Cancer Institute and associated medical facilities at the University of Utah to help protect health care workers treating Covid-19 patients.
Other companies with Houston-area manufacturing facilities, while not making new products, have vowed to maintain operations, despite stay-at-home orders, to produce products used in the fight against the pandemic.
“Our chlor-alkali and polyethylene products are supplying the critical infrastructure, along with PVC pipe and building products, so our plants continue to run, albeit with the adoption of best safe practices as recommended by the U.S. CDC or other local authorities,” Erika Soechting, a spokeswoman for Westlake Chemical, said in an email statement.
Kingsport, Tenn.-based Eastman Chemical, which operates manufacturing plants in Texas City and Longview has committed “to keep plants running safely and shipping products to our customers,” spokesman Brad Belote said. “We have implemented a plan to remove nonoperations personnel from operating areas to further protect the health of our operators and mechanics who are needed onsite to continue running our manufacturing processes.”
Germany-based Evonik Industries, which recently acquired the former PeroxyChem Bayport hydrogen peroxide manufacturing plant in Pasadena, has boosted production of several grades of the chemical, used in the production of sanitizers and disinfectant products, plant manager Amy Lehman said.
Other companies with strong Houston ties but whose primary businesses aren’t chemicals also have contributed to the effort to produce sanitizer to help fight the spread of the coronavirus.
The chemicals team at Baker Hughes in Houston reallocated chemical supplies and partnered with Pearland-based chemical manufacturing company Syntech to produce hand sanitizer, said Burns Schilling, director of supply chain for Baker Hughes Oilfield and Industrial Chemicals division.
He said the company will donate the hand sanitizer to about 40 Houston-area sites, including hospitals, local first responders, nursing homes, shelters and food banks. Baylor College of Medicine received 1,700 gallons of the product April 9, he said.
Syntech President Jim Gordon said it and its 35 employees are donating time and facilities — and using chemicals donated by Baker Hughes — to produce sanitizer in five-gallon pails, 32-ounce bottles and one-gallon containers. The company, Gordon said, which produces about 30 million pounds of oilfield-related chemical products per year, primarily for Baker Hughes, can produce as much as 45,000 pounds per day of sanitizer.