When 2020 began, the main item on the calendar of Braskem executive Mark Nikolich was the opening of Project Delta, the firm's new polypropylene resin line in La Porte, Texas.
But many unexpected events happened between January and the start of the new billion-pound-capacity line in September. That list included the COVID-19 pandemic, a pair of hurricanes and 28-day shifts at two Braskem PP plants.
"There was a lot of anticipation for the new plant," Braskem America CEO Nikolich said in a recent interview with Plastics News. "We were delayed by four months, but we're now running at nameplate capacity."
The $750 million project can produce a full line of homopolymer, random copolymer and impact copolymer PP grades. Project Delta came in less than 10 percent over its original budget and schedule in spite of rising costs on the U.S. Gulf Coast. The project created 1,300 jobs during construction and provides 50 permanent jobs.
The new capacity was needed in the North American market, as PP demand bounced back quickly after dropping amid pandemic shutdowns in March and April.
"From a demand perspective, things were very stable," Nikolich said. "Automotive came to a full stop, then it came back."
He cited rigid and flexible packaging — including takeout food containers — as well as consumer products, industrial and nonwovens in medical as growth areas for PP in 2020.
The marathon 28-day shifts took place in March and April at Braskem's PP plants in Marcus Hook, Pa., and Neal, W.Va. Workers agreed to live at the plants and work those shifts to limit the spread of COVID-19 and to keep the plants running.
Both plants make PP used in fabric for N95 masks, hospital gowns and hoods, and other medical applications needed during the pandemic. The Marcus Hook shift involved 46 workers, and the Neal team had 44.
The 28-day shifts "are less about our industry and more about how teams and communities come together in a crisis," Nikolich said in April.
PP supplies also were affected in August by Hurricane Laura and a few weeks later by Hurricane Delta. Outages at some Gulf Coast plants tightened a resin market that already had been limited by supplies of propylene feedstock.
Propylene had been in short supply, as pandemic slowdowns at oil and gas refineries led to less propylene being made as a byproduct. This tightness caused North American PP prices to surge 19.5 cents up between May and November — with an increase in December possible as well.
"Hurricanes played a major role," Nikolich said. "Days of [PP] inventory were in the mid-30s in the first quarter, then briefly were up to the 40s but now are in the high 20s. North American polypropylene doesn't operate well at 30 days or below."
Braskem also had some planned turnarounds at its plants in Neal and in Seadrift, Texas, but both plants are running now. In spite of these supply issues, Nikolich said Braskem met the challenge in 2020.
"At first it was hard to keep pace with our asset base," he explained. "But we were able to supply every customer."
"When the timing of one asset gets noticed as much as our new one did, that tells you the market is pretty tight. I think we'll be building [resin] inventory into the first quarter of 2021."