Albemarle phasing in $540 million Columbia County expansion over five years

Albemarle phasing in $540 million Columbia County expansion over five years

  • Mike McNeill, publisher and editor  Nov 17, 2022

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series about Albemarle Corporation’s plans to expand its two Columbia County bromine plants. Part 2 will be published Friday.

Higher global demand for bromine is the driving force behind Albemarle Corporation’s $540 million expansion in Columbia County plants.

Dru Manuel, vice president of Bromine Manufacturing for Albemarle, described why the company – and the world – needs more bromine in a recent interview.

Manuel also touched on the company’s plans to piggyback lithium production from the stream of brine that flows through a growing network of wells and pipelines into the Magnolia South and Magnolia West plants.

“Bromine's a pretty diverse product. It’s used in many things that people really aren't aware of. Like, for example, you probably drove on some bromine today. It’s in brominated rubber. It makes tires stronger and they also hold more air, which helps with gas mileage,” Manuel said.

Bromine is part of many electrical devices, from cloud servers to electric vehicles.

“There's more bromine in an electric vehicle than an internal combustion engine car. So as the world goes green, there is a really nice pairing between lithium and bromine, and that's really one of the main drivers behind the growth of the business,” Manuel said.

Albemarle must increase bromine production to maintain market share.

“We've got to put the investment in and make sure that all the customers (with whom) we have long-standing relationships get the flame retardants or the bromine derivatives that they've been getting from us,” he said.

The expansion will accommodate production of more flame retardants used in a wide variety of products, from video screens and computer cases to printed circuit boards and the coating for wire cables.

“Investing the kind of money you see into Magnolia is not something we take lightly. So, we've actually been working on these investment plans for many years to make sure we were confident in the markets and that we also know which products we needed to expand, and that we had the capability and the resources to get it right,” Manuel said.

“We had to do a lot of work to convince the board and the CEO that, hey, we could do this successfully and that the growth was there. We're just to the point where we can pull the trigger and talk about it publicly,” he said. “This is definitely not a recent decision. This is something we've been working on for quite some time.”

The $540 million project – the largest industrial expansion in Columbia County history – combines elements of new construction and rebuilding. It starts with expanding capacity of Albemarle’s brine fields with new wells and pipelines.

That process is already under way. Just last week, the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission issued Albemarle four permits for the drilling of new brine supply wells. Patterson UTI Energy will drill two wells more than 8,300 feet deep in the Kilgore Lodge Field, and two more about 7,700 feet deep in the Village Field.

Construction work will be spread out over five years. About 250 contractors will be involved, and the first of about 100 new employees will come on board.

The five-year timeline has to do with the fact that “the kind of equipment that we use in Magnolia is not readily available on the market.

“Bromine is an interesting chemical. It takes some unique metals and polymers” for equipment, he said.

Most of the equipment will be custom built, which means long delivery times from the placement of orders to installation.

“So we stage in when we can get workers, how many workers we can bring in when the equipment comes, and we build together,” Manuel said. “We put that together in a five-year plan to make sure we've got everything.”

In addition to bromine, Albemarle is a world leader in lithium production. The basic element is the main chemical used in rechargeable electric batteries, such as those in the booming electric vehicle market.

Albemarle mines lithium around the world. This includes extracting lithium from hard rock mines in western Australia, to evaporating brine on the salt flats of Chile’s Atacama Desert and refining the residue into lithium.

About 10 years ago, the company developed a method to extract lithium from the same brine that Albemarle uses to produce bromine in Columbia County. The company did not move forward with lithium production.

That’s going to change, but not right away.

Bromine expansion construction will include the basic infrastructure that will allow follow-on construction of lithium plants at Magnolia South, Magnolia West, or both.

“There’s going to be some capped off pipes and (concrete) foundations. There will be some space designated for some future development of lithium,” Manuel said.

COMING FRIDAY: Albemarle’s growing workforce.

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