Chemical maker DuPont (NYSE: DD) on Tuesday joined other major U.S. companies in reporting earnings that handily beat analysts' expectations.

For the quarter, DuPont chalked up net earnings of $376 million, or $0.40 per share, compared with the $441 million, or $0.48 per share, in the fourth quarter of 2009. However, after backing out items, the company's earnings were $0.50 per share, a healthy drubbing of the $0.32 per share that analysts had anticipated. Furthermore, at $7.4 billion, revenues were 15% higher year on year and significantly above expectations of $6.95 billion.

Looking broadly at the company's results, on the positive side are benefits from products typically used in paint for automobiles and plastics. But increased materials costs, including crude oil prices, resulted in a 15% dip in the quarter's net income. As one who believes that crude prices will continue to slowly -- albeit steadily -- work their way higher, it appears that one significant result for DuPont and its peers could be squeezed margins in future periods.

At the same time, five of the company's six operating segments posted largely volume-driven sales increases. For instance, sales of performance chemicals, which often find their way into automobile paint, increased 27% year on year. Electronics and communications climbed 44%, most of which was related to volume increases. And performance materials, whose plastics frequently are also used in automobile manufacturing, grew its sales by 32%.

For the remainder of the year, management now projects that per-share earnings will come in between $3.45 and $3.75. Those figures have been increased from prior guidance in the $3.30 to $3.60 range.

As it previously announced, the company has agreed to acquire Denmark's Danisco, an enzyme and specialty food gradients company that will increase DuPont's role in the food industry. The agreed-upon price is $5.8 billion in cash, plus the assumption of $500 million in debt, and the acquisition is expected to reduce DuPont's earnings for this year by $0.30 to $0.45 per share.

CEO Ellen Kullman summed up her company's solid quarter by noting that, "We continue to differentiate DuPont through sustainable growth, disciplined execution, and ongoing productivity coupled with science-powered innovation to address population megatrends around food, energy, and protection."

Ashland (NYSE: ASH), another smaller chemical maker, turned in results on Tuesday that were flattened by higher costs. We'll know more about major trends in the industry next week when DuPont's larger rival Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW), along with smaller Eastman Chemical (NYSE: EMN) report their results, which in both cases are expected to increase. If I were a betting man, however, I'd wager that it'll be difficult for any of those yet to report to top expectations by the extent that DuPont did.

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