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Japanese Company Opening New Chemical Plant Near Houston

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Tokyo-based Kuraray chemical company will soon open its new plant near Houston that’ll produce materials for windshield safety glass and the rapidly growing segment of laundry and dishwasher detergent pods.

Kuraray will hold a samurai sword, ribbon-cutting ceremony later this month, but the new petrochemical plant already has begun producing sample polyvinyl alcohol — the polymer used to make the resin for safety glass for car windshields and more — to market to potential customers, said George Avdey, president and CEO of Kuraray America. The polyvinyl alcohol is marketed under the Kuraray Poval brand.

This is Kuraray’s third plant southeast of Houston, Avdey said, but the project represents the company’s largest geographic investment in the region on 81 acres along Bay Area Boulevard in Harris County’s Bayport development. The plant is only occupying half of the acreage.

“There’s always opportunities and, when the time is right, we’ll expand,” Avdey said Tuesday in a phone interview.

Kuraray is not revealing the project costs. The plant will employ 54 people, as well as about 40 contract personnel.

The project is a direct result of Texas’ natural gas shale boom, which results in cheap ethane and butane feedstocks to manufacture the chemicals, as well as cheap electricity to operate the plant, Avdey said. Other countries use a form of crude oil that’s plummeted in price to produce chemicals, but natural gas remains cheaper, he said.

“It’s certainly made them (Europe and Asia) more competitive, but not near as low as the U.S.,” Avdey said. “The U.S. has the lowest cost for many of the materials.”

In the U.S., the American Chemistry Council counts 266 projects planned from 2010 to 2023 that cost $164 billion to build. Texas would be home for 104 of the projects – worth $51.3 billion – and most of those are in southern Texas, including the Houston area. The council expects those projects to result in 15,800 “direct” new jobs — not counting construction jobs — in Texas and 67,000 nationwide.

Companies including Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Phillips, Dow Chemical Co., BASF and LyondellBasell have multibillion-dollar expansion projects underway in areas such as Baytown, Channelview, Mont Belvieu, La Porte and Freeport. Many will be done in a year or so.

Avdey acknowledged the rapid growth of the laundry detergent pods might be the biggest reason why the new Kuraray plant was built. Kuraray in 2012 acquired MonoSol, which manufactures the the water-soluble film for the pods. He touts Kuraray as the world’s largest producer of polyvinyl alcohol.

The plant is in startup mode now, Avdey said, but it may not hit its operational capacity of 40,000 metric tons a year until late 2017 or so once more customers sign on.

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