The “F” Word That’s Cleaning up Dirty Industries

Water touches nearly every aspect of our lives. Not always, but occasionally, spending inordinate amounts of time with any one thing leads toward needing some time apart. It can be healthy for any relationship, no? So it's only natural that many things need their alone time from water every once in a while (or all the while in some cases).

"Flocculants," or clarifying agents, are the key ingredient for one of the most common water treatment methods. When flocculation is done right, any suspended solids are removed from liquids. This attractive chemical brings dirty things together so they can be more easily cleaned up, leaving behind cleaner water that can be consumed or recycled. 

Don't know what you've got until it's gone?
Thankfully, water usage and availability has become a hot button issue, grabbing deserved attention across the world. Tougher disposal regulations and reuse initiatives are playing right into the hands of these attractive chemical agents called flocculants.

Nalco, a subsidiary of Ecolab (NYSE: ECL  ) , is a global supplier of chemicals used in water treatment and pollution control. Its POL-E-Z brand of liquid flocculants helps minimize the amount of mixing and water required to run a coal preparation plant. Better suited for remote applications, POL-E-Z in liquid form has a longer shelf-life and activates more rapidly than competing powder forms. Ecolab purchased Nalco in 2011 for $5.4 billion. The combined entity has 38,000 employees and sells over $12 billion worth of products each year. Foodservice, health care, hospitality and industrial companies in over 160 countries have purchased from Ecolab. 

Cytec Industries (NYSE: CYT  ) is a specialty chemicals and materials company. They are quite a large player in exciting markets such as aerospace materials and high performance automotive. Outside of that, they've got flocculants: a brand called CYFLOC. Alumina refineries use CYFLOC to help settle mud in the washing circuit. Also, Cytec has a strong position in base metals processing, particularly in the flotation and solvent extraction of copper.

As a cautionary, investors and alumina refinery operators should read Cytec's material safety sheet before handling CYFLOC. One of the largest suppliers of mining reagents in the world, Cytec is helping its customers meet complex metallurgical, economic, and environmental challenges on a daily basis. Sales for their in-process separation division were $384 million in 2012. 

BASF (NASDAQOTH: BASFY  ) , or "The Chemical Company," as it refers to itself in the commercial, is a heavyweight among heavyweights, weighing in at a valuation near $95 billion. Its fingers are in a wide range of businesses: coatings, cosmetics, crop health, detergents, nitric acid, polyurethane, and you guessed it— flocculants! Within BASF's mining solutions division, not surprisingly, it purports to offer a total package for all your solid liquid separation needs. Expertise in polymer chemistry has led to the creation of well-known flocculants brands such as Drimax, Magnafloc, and Rheomax (used in mine tailings management). 

Amid the $120 billion behemoth that is Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB  ) , analysts will find seismic and surveying, perforating and production, drill bits and directional drilling. Just as you start to get in fairly deep you find a little subsidiary (13,000 employees) called M-I Swaco. What attractive chemical do you think is buried within M-I Swaco's product mix? That dirty "F" word again, don't you just love saying it...flocculants! Reclaim is a new and improved flocculation technology brought to market by M-I Swaco. This method makes it possible to extend the lifespan of drilling fluids; in a best case scenario they can be reused. Floxit and Gelex are two other brands of flocculants that are used during oil drilling. 

Final thoughts
Flocculants might not be the sexiest of products, and they aren't very fun to read about either, but they certainly have attracted their share of profits for many of the companies selling them.

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