Lagging prices in parts of the agrochemicals sector could catch up with growing volumes in 2019, helped by the recovery of Brazil’s agricultural sector, destocking of crop-protection producers, and the launch of new products, says Scope Ratings.
The mix should provide a counter-cyclical tailwind for integrated chemicals companies which have led recent industry consolidation—BASF, DowDuPont, ChemChina (Syngenta) and Bayer — and are looking to agrochemicals revenue growth and cost savings to help pay down merger-related debt.
“Stronger credit metrics could be the positive outcome,” says Klaus Kobold, analyst at Scope. Scope acknowledges that this outlook is vulnerable to external factors, such as escalating trade tensions, a decline in commodity prices in general and the devaluation of the exchange rates of middle-income countries with large agricultural sectors such as Brazil, says Kobold.
The global agrochemical market is made up two sub sectors of roughly equal size: Crop-protection products like pesticides and fertilisers. Scope treats pesticides, fungicides and herbicides similarly to specialty materials because the manufacturing process requires substantially more product knowledge. Fertilisers are more like a commodity, as they are sold in larger quantities and product prices are more transparent.
Demand for agrochemicals is driven by a diversity of factors: From prices for farm produce to the availability and quality of farmland, environmental regulation and shorter-term weather conditions. One consequence is that the global agrochemicals supply and demand follows their own cycle, not necessarily in phase with the global economic growth. Recent years are a good example, with a market contraction in 2015 followed by years of little or no recovery, despite sturdy global economic growth.
However, the cycle seems to have turned. Amid the powerful underlying demand driver of population growth and improving commodity prices—the World Bank forecasts mostly higher soft commodity prices for this year and next—the conditions are right for farmers to invest and plant more and be able to afford more expensive plant-protection products.
The latest indications from the corporate sector also support the view of an improving agrochemicals market, particularly in the crop-protection segment. Bayer Crop Science, DowDuPont’s Corteva Agriscience and ChemChina’s Syngenta have showed improved revenues this year and signalled favourable future pricing.
“It’s also worth noting that the recent consolidation in the agrochemicals sector should give players some extra pricing power,” says Kobold.
Strong order book driving profitable revenue growth
Industrial services provider Bilfinger continued to grow in the financial year 2018. Relevant key figures improved across all business segments, meeting the forecasts and in some instances even outperforming them. The Strategy 2020 stabilization phase has been completed, the set milestones have been reached: Orders received, revenue and earnings developed positively, while the Group’s liquidity and return on capital employed were at levels above those of the previous year.
“We delivered on our 2020 strategy and on our commitments to both internal and external stakeholders. I am particularly pleased with the successful conclusion of the DPA and our Monitor’s Certification that Bilfinger is on an irreversible course towards compliance self-sufficiency. I think we can confidently say that 2018 was a year of achievement for Bilfinger.”
Tom Blades, CEO Bilfinger
The business environment continued to be robust in our six focus industries, particularly in Chemicals & Petrochem, Oil & Gas and Pharma & Biopharma. Demand for engineering and maintenance services continued to build on top of growing mechanical construction opportunities in the United States.
Strengthening the sense of purpose
Bilfinger continues to fine tune and adopt its 2-4-6 Strategy to better serve customers and drive margin development. Its engineering resources delivering both project management consulting and maintenance engineering have now been fully integrated into the regions to enhance Bilfingers end-to-end EMC capabilities. Consequently, the divisions are renamed E&M effective January 1, 2019. The technology companies delivering Energy & Emissions, Biopharma and Automation products remain grouped together and serve Bilfinger customers globally from their European manufacturing base. Together they form the Technologies division also effective January 1, 2019.
In connection with the described adjustment to its organizational structure, Bilfinger is also adjusting its reporting segments as of the beginning of 2019. The forecasts and statements related to the expected development of the Group are made within the scope of these reporting structures.
In the Technologies segment, a significant increase in revenue (2018: €499 million) is expected as a result of growth in order backlog. This is subject to continued and anticipated strong orders received in the course of the year. Bilfinger expects stable revenue development in the Engineering & Maintenance Europe segment (2018: €2,732 million). At Engineering & Maintenance International, the Group sees positive momentum in the markets and therefore expects significant revenue growth (2018: €763 million).
Molecular-weight polymer selection
Researchers at Kanazawa University report in Nature Communications that a crystal of molecules known as pillararenes can form a host–guest compound with poly(ethylene oxides) polymers. The effect can be used to select polymers with different molecular weights and end groups.
When polymers are confined into one-dimensional (1D) channels, they behave differently. Their dynamics changes, and they may chemically bind to the surrounding channel. A team of researchers led by Tomoki Ogoshi from Kanazawa University has now shown that such 1D confinement, provided by a molecular crystal of so-called activated pillararenes, can be used to selectively capture different types of polymers.
The scientists studied host–guest binding (‘complexation’) between activated pillararenes (abbreviated ‘P5’) and poly(ethylene oxide) polymers (abbreviated ‘PEO’). P5 is a molecule consisting of 5 identical organic units featuring a benzene ring, with a pentagonal shape. The monomeric building block of PEO is O-CH2-CH2; PEOs with 100 or more monomers can easily be synthesized.
Host–guest complexation was achieved by first melting PEO at 80°C, and then immersing the P5 molecules activated by drying solvates into the melt. By means of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy measurements, Ogoshi and colleagues were able to show that PEO molecules were taken up by the P5 structure. X-ray diffraction experiments showed that the crystal structure of the P5 molecules had changed into a network featuring channels.
The researchers then looked at what happened with a mixture of PEOs consisting of various numbers of monomers. The number of building blocks affects the weight — the more monomers, the heavier the polymer. Ogoshi and colleagues discovered that the heavier PEOs were taken up in larger quantities, showing that the P5 host can select PEOs with high mass fraction from a polydisperse mixture. By means of computer simulations, it was possible to attribute this finding to an increased binding energy for the larger (heavier) PEOs.
The scientists also investigated the effect of the PEO’s end group. The fastest PEO uptake was observed for methoxy end groups (O-CH3), for which an equilibrium state was reached after 3 minutes. For OH and NH2 end groups, the times to reach equilibrium were 10 and 20 minutes, respectively. Uptake for PEO with COOH as the end group was slow.
The observation by Ogoshi and colleagues that P5 crystals can perform high mass fractionation from polymer mixtures with a broad molecular-weight distribution is important because, quoting the scientists, “high-molecular-weight polymers generally exhibit superior characteristics such as increased thermal stability, improved mechanical properties, and higher crystallinity compared with low-molecular-weight polymers.”
Digital metering and control devices
New Features for Industrial Gas Flow Meters
The In-Flow Mass Flow Meters and Controllers by Bronkhorst High-Tech, The Netherlands, are of rugged design according IP65 (dust- and waterproof). The instruments are available for flow ranges from 0,05-1 mln/min up to 200-10000 m3n/h Air-equivalent.
In addition to the optional Atex approval for use in Category 3, Zone 2 hazardous areas, the In-Flow series can now be offered with FM approval for Class I, Division 2, which is an important feature for the North American market.
Furthermore Bronkhorst announces the availability of a Profinet fieldbus interface on their industrial mass flow meters and controllers for gases (for this new fieldbus the FM and Atex approvals are pending). Profinet is said to be the “new standard for industrial automation”, offering major savings in configuration and commissioning. The flexible architecture of Profinet with its comprehensive scope of functions enables innovative, flexible, and cost-saving machine automation: maximum performance and precision, flexible address assignment and modular design, fast commissioning thanks to open access and defined interfaces and optimal diagnostics of devices as well as the network.
Bronkhorst has many years of experience with fieldbus communication. Depending on customer requirements, their digital flow meters and controllers can be equipped with one of the six available fieldbus interface options. The wide range of digital metering and control devices is applied in many different markets, e.g. the food & beverage, pharmaceutical and chemical industries, glass and tool coating processes and in machinery for solar cell production.