Wacker Celebrates Centennial Celebrating A Hundred Years in Chemicals

Editor: Dominik Stephan

Wacker Chemie is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding, 100 years after Alexander Wacker had his company “Dr. Alexander Wacker Gesellschaft für elektrochemische Industrie, KG” entered in the town of Traunstein’s commercial register on October 13, 1914.

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In 1918, Bavaria’s King Ludwig III visited the new Wacker site. The king is atthe picture’s center foreground at right, with Alexander Wacker at left (photo:Wacker Chemie AG).
In 1918, Bavaria’s King Ludwig III visited the new Wacker site. The king is atthe picture’s center foreground at right, with Alexander Wacker at left (photo:Wacker Chemie AG).
(Picture: Wacker)

Munich/Germany –The entrepreneur Alexander Wacker was born in Heidelberg in 1846. Trained as a businessman, Wacker had initially joined forces with Sigmund Schuckert to spread electrification across Germany. In 1903, he established the “Consortium für elektrochemische Industrie,” which today is Wacker’s corporate research department. His aim was to use electrochemical processes to manufacture useful chemical compounds based on carbide and its derivative, acetylene.

In 1914, Wacker received approval for the construction of a hydroelectric power plant and of a canal that would join the Alz and Salzach rivers. In his search for a suitable location, he chose a site close to the town of Burghausen (Bavaria). This site featured a 63-meter gradient between the Alz and the Salzach, which could be used to generate electricity. That same year he also founded “Alexander Wacker Gesellschaft für elektrochemische Industrie”: the origin of the Wacker Group. It was from this company that Wacker-Chemie (until 2005) and today’s Wacker Chemie (since 2006) would eventually emerge.

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The first facilities within the Burghausen plant took advantage of the methods developed at the Consortium for synthesizing acetaldehyde, acetic acid and acetone. The direct oxidation of acetylene to acetaldehyde, a process licensed worldwide, played a crucial role.

The Dawn of Silicones Marked a New Era

Acetone, which was needed in large quantities for making synthetic rubber, was the principal sales driver in the fledgling company’s early years. Acetylene also provided the chemical basis for further products. Polyvinyl acetate, polyvinyl alcohol and polyvinyl chloride were all derived from acetylene chemistry.

In the 1940s, work began on two new product groups, both based on the element silicon: 1947 saw the dawn of the silicone era in Burghausen. Metallurgical-grade silicon was soon also used as a raw material for the manufacture of another key product: hyperpure silicon for the semiconductor industry.

Into the Future with Polymer Chemistry

Polymer chemistry also made great strides in the post-war years. In the early 1950s, Wacker chemists developed the principles for producing dispersible polymer powders for dry-mix mortars, which today are an integral part of many tile adhesives, plasters and building-insulation systems. In 1957, the first dispersible polymer powder production plant went on stream. Copolymers and terpolymers were additionally developed in quick succession. They considerably extended the range of properties and applications of dispersions. A milestone was achieved in 1960, when vinyl acetate-ethylene copolymer (VAE) was discovered. This discovery made it possible to produce inexpensive plastics with innovative properties.

Over subsequent years, Wacker entered new territory, thanks to its advances in acetylene chemistry and innovations in silicon chemistry. In the late 1960s, Wacker became the first major manufacturer of silicones in Europa to successfully penetrate the US market.

Well established business with vinyl plastics boomed as well. As a result, experts started to wonder whether the energy-intensive and comparatively expensive production of carbide-derived acetylene could be replaced by a new, more cost-effective process based on petroleum. The switch was ultimately achieved at the end of the 1950s in what became the “Second Wacker Process,” using ethylene as the starting product for acetic acid.

Going Global: Chemical Production for the World

Wacker’s focus in the 1970s and 1980s was all about increasing exports. This period witnessed the establishment of a great many subsidiaries both in Europe (the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Sweden, the UK and Spain) and overseas (Brazil, Mexico and the USA). Wacker entered the Asian market in 1983, when it founded Wacker Chemicals East Asia in Tokyo.

In the 1990s, Wacker began to develop biotechnology as a new business field. A biotech research center began work in Burghausen in 1990. The acquisition of ProThera in Jena and the establishment of Wacker Biotech in 2005 expanded the Group’s existing pharmaceutical operations to include the contract development of pharmaceutical proteins (biologics). Wacker acquired Halle-based Scil Proteins Production in 2013. The Halle site produces pharmaceutical actives both for clinical trials and for the marketsupply phase.

A Decade of Production in China

Entering the 21st century, Wacker continues to make progress on the Group’s internationalization. Major sites have been established in Europe, Asia and the USA. In 1998, Wacker acquired the Nünchritz chemical site in the German state of Saxony. Wacker began producing silicones in China in 2004. Wacker and Samsung decided to jointly construct a fab for the manufacture of 300 mm semiconductor wafers in 2006. This fab went on stream just 18 months later.

In 2008, Wacker and Dow Corning launched the world’s largest integrated production site for siloxane in Zhangjiagang, China. 2011 saw the Group embark on the construction of a further polysilicon production plant in Charleston, Tennessee, USA.

The Group’s shareholder structures changed during this time, too. In 1921, following an increase in capital stock, Hoechst had acquired a 50-percent stake in Wacker. Alongside the Wacker family, Hoechst remained the major shareholder in the company for 84 years. Hoechst started to gradually reduce its stake in 2001.

The last of Hoechst’s shares were transferred to the family in 2005. This paved the way for a successful IPO, which took place on April 8, 2006. Since then, the company has been known as Wacker Chemie. Today, Wacker is a globally active group headquartered in Munich. With a wide range of highly advanced specialty products, Wacker is a global market leader in its business fields.

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