By Corning Painter

We can think of air emission controls at chemical plants as filters that catch targeted materials from a stack like the way a coffee filter holds back the grounds.

The analogy does a great job describing the technology’s function with basic language. However, the comparison fails to convey the complexity and enormity of the systems that Orion S.A. has installed at our U.S. plants over the past five years – our biggest sustainability-related initiative in the company’s history. Indeed, it is simply our largest project since we became Orion.

As we come close to completing the undertaking, I thought this was a great time to share a few reflections about how significant finishing the air emissions projects will be for the environment and Orion’s continued investment in sustainability and growth.

I am sure most people who are not familiar with the carbon black business – and even many industry insiders – would be amazed at how massive and complex the controls equipment is. It is one of those things you need to see in person to fully appreciate.

Air emissions equipment at Orion's plant in Louisiana.
Air emissions equipment at Orion’s plant in Louisiana.

I will always remember a recent visit to our plant in Ivanhoe, Louisiana, when I climbed the 150-foot structure that is part of the new system installed at the facility. From the platform, I could look out and see miles and miles of sugar cane fields and other farmland stretching far into the distance. Just below me, the hulking, gleaming components of our system – including a thermal oxidizer, waste heat recovery boiler and huge catalytic beds – took up large areas of space in the middle of our production equipment. At the edge I could see the new cogeneration equipment that a partner company is installing to generate electricity from our steam.

One of my colleagues aptly observed that the Ivanhoe project was like building a separate chemical plant inside of an operating carbon black production facility. At the Louisiana plant, Orion was the first in the carbon black industry to install technology that captured emissions and converted them to sulfuric acid, the world’s largest volume industrial chemical, ranging in use from fertilizers to traditional car batteries.  It was a major milestone in Orion’s commitment to developing circular solutions for our waste streams.

I have been thinking a lot about this lately as we near the end of an extremely arduous journey that began when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency directed all the carbon black producers in the U.S. to reduce nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate emissions.

Orion reached an agreement with the EPA in December 2017 about how to proceed with the project and began upgrading the emissions control systems at its four U.S. plants.

Frankly, the mandate created colossal challenges for us – both financial and technical. No other carbon black producer has as many plants in the U.S. as Orion does. With four facilities in the country, installing the systems would involve a massive price tag – about $300 million.

Adding to the burden, Orion was still a relatively new and very lean company, carved out of the German chemical company Evonik Industries just a few years before. The scale of these projects was huge for us. Ivanhoe alone was larger than either of our greenfield projects in Huaibei, China, or La Porte, Texas. We were not initially geared up for the challenge.

Part of the air-emissions system at Orion's plant in Borger, Texas.
Part of the air-emissions system at Orion’s plant in Borger, Texas.

Building such emissions-controls systems is a huge task during normal times. And we all know the past three years have been far from normal!

Just as we were in the middle of the five-year initiative, the Covid-19 pandemic began ravaging the world, disrupting our suppliers and steady progress. Supply chain disruptions increased costs and limited the availability of building materials or delayed deliveries.

I am extremely proud that our entire team stayed committed to the goal. It is times like these when companies can show they are serious about their core values and actually live them. And that is exactly what Orion did.

We value accountability, and for us that means putting safety first and adhering to the highest standards of integrity. Innovation is another core value, and in this case, it was about finding ways to limit our emissions. Finally, building enduring relationships is our third value. For us, this includes being a positive member of our communities.

We finished our first EPA project in 2020 at our plant in Orange, Texas. The second one was commissioned in Ivanhoe in late 2021.

Most recently, our facility in Borger, Texas, was upgraded in late 2022 with a system that reduces nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions by 90 percent, a decrease that amounts to about 23 total metric tons per day. Our final project in Belpre, Ohio, is on track to be completed in 2023.

Finishing the work will be a huge milestone for Orion. We will continue to make other major investments in sustainability-linked projects: water conservation, lithium-ion battery materials, circular economy and research focused on one of the biggest challenges in our industry – CO2 emissions. The solutions we are working hard to develop go beyond the ongoing efforts to improve yield and efficiency. They include the exploration and use of alternative feedstocks, alternative fuels, alternative production technologies, cogeneration and carbon capture and storage options.

These projects will create a virtuous cycle where our investments generate cash, which in turn fuels future investments and the transformation of our company.

All of us at Orion can look back at the past five years and feel an extreme amount of pride. We stayed committed during intensely trying times and honored our agreement to make our facilities cleaner, leading to a big impact for the environment and health in our communities.

If you think of yourself as an ESG investor, I encourage you to consider an investment in a company like Orion that is working to transform the footprint of an essential material. In fields like this, you can be a true impact investor.

Corning Painter is the CEO of Orion S.A. 

Designing a hard hat sticker

When building a new plant, we traditionally create a sticker that the team can place on their hard hats. The decals add to a sense of comradery and express pride in being part of the project.

As we began constructing our latest facility in La Porte, Texas, we thought about hiring a graphic designer to make a sticker for the project. But then we decided to ask people across Orion to submit designs. We thought it would be a great way to give everyone – accountants, salespeople, IT technicians, etc. – an opportunity to flex their creative muscles and be a part of the project.

Our design specifications called for the sticker to be round and include the Orion colors: blue, black and white. We also wanted the sticker to include at least one element that localized the design and tied it to La Porte.

The response was overwhelming. We received 13 designs from colleagues across the world. Picking the final design was a tough task for our panel of judges. The winner was Lucas Barreto, an international technical purchaser at our plant in Paulinia, Brazil.

Lucas’ eye-catching sticker captures the local features of La Porte, a historic city where the Houston Ship Channel meets Galveston Bay. The decal includes the city’s symbol – a bay bird – as well as La Porte’s most famous landmark, the San Jacinto Monument – the world’s tallest war memorial. Sprinkled around the edges of the sticker are acetylene-based conductive additives, which will be produced by the plant.

The La Porte plant is special because it will be the only facility in the U.S. producing acetylene-based conductive additives. The material is commonly used in lithium-ion batteries, high-voltage cables and other products powering the global transition to electrification and renewable energy.

Acetylene is a colorless gas widely used as a chemical building block. Orion’s production process turns acetylene into a powder, which is added to lithium-ion batteries, enhancing electrical conductivity and extending the lifetime of the most valuable component of an electric vehicle. The material plays a similar role in high-voltage cables used for wind and solar farms.

The plant, which is expected to produce approximately 12 kilotons per year, should quadruple Orion’s effective manufacturing capacity of acetylene-based conductive additives.

Orion has a similar plant in France and is the only acetylene-based conductive additive producer in Europe.

When he was 10 years old, Oscar H. Thackery began rebuilding vintage British motorcycles and has restored more than 200 of them during his lifetime.

His first one was salvaged from his grandfather’s scrap metal yard, where people frequently dropped off their old motorcycles in the northwestern English town of Blackburn.

“One day, my dad said, ‘We will take one of these motorcycles home and rebuild it,” said Oscar, the Global Refractory SME for the Reliability group who spends most of his time at Orion plants worldwide finding ways to improve operations.

The first father-and-son project was an ugly, rusty red BSA Bantam, commonly used by the British postal service. BSA stands for Birmingham Small Arms. Along with motorcycles, the company also made guns. Its corporate logo features three rifles.

“I remember riding the motorcycle in the farm fields around our village,” Oscar said. “That’s when my passion for these bikes really took off. By the time I was 16, I owned about 16 motorcycles.”

He said his lifelong hobby complements his job at Orion because it keeps his mind grounded in the hands-on, practical side of his work. It enables him to easily shift from theory to on-site problem solving.

“When people in our plants know that I can turn a wrench and weld a bracket, they really appreciate that,” he said. “Having the practical knowledge about how to get these things correct — like replacing bearings — it’s what our maintenance crews experience every day.”

Half of his tidy garage in the Houston suburb of Porter is taken up with four vintage British motorcycles and tall black tool cases. Shelving along the back wall is packed with neatly organized plastic bins of cables, carburetors, gear boxes and other spare parts that he has collected over the years.

Parked in the front of the garage is a black Norton 850 cc Commando, one of the last to be produced when it was made in 1975. Oscar bought the machine in 2010 from a widow who had stored it in a barn in Waco, Texas, after her husband died. He spent 18 months rebuilding it.

“People often ask me, ‘Oscar, do your motorcycles run?’” he said. “And I tell them, ‘Of course they run. I wouldn’t have them here and not running.”

Just before Oscar turned the ignition key on the Norton, he warned, “When they start, they sound like a bag of nails.” The machine quickly rumbled itself awake. The exhaust pipe started vibrating and making loud barking and growling noises. It was ready for the road.

“See, once it gets warm, it behaves,” he said.

The vintage motorcycles are often sold for between $20,000 and $25,000 at auction — a large sum of money for the machines.

During the weekends, Oscar enjoys going for long rides through the forests in northern Texas. He has never had a motorcycle break down on the road. Filling up the gas tank often takes a long time.

“Every time I stop at a gas station, someone will ask me, ‘Is that a Norton or a BSA?’ Oscar said. “They will want to take a picture because their dad had one. Sometimes you can get caught at the gas station for 30 minutes because someone wants to talk and take photos.”

The speedometers and tachometers on the bikes are all mechanical, like a Swiss watch. Repairing them can be expensive. Oscar gets his instruments serviced by a watchmaker in Ohio who spent three months with an expert in England learning how to rebuild them.

All of Oscar’s motorcycles have a story.

He has a 1970 Triumph Tiger, whose original owner was a veteran who bought the bike when he returned from the Vietnam War. He rode it all over the country before storing it in a lean-to. It was in bad shape when Oscar began rebuilding it. The gas tank — painted with an avocado color called “Spring Gold” — has a distinctive patina.

“What amazes me is that it has 63,000 miles on it, which for a motorcycle is quite a lot,” he said.

In front of the Triumph is a 1961 BSA Spitfire that Oscar bought from a farmer in Oregon. Before the purchase, the last time the motorbike ran was in 1982. After changing the fluids and adjusting the magneto, the Beeza started on the first kick.

The Spitfire was an export machine for the US market that was demanded by the U.S. dealers for desert racing in the 1960’s. It is made for the track, and Oscar has raced it against Triumphs and Nortons in Texas.

“I got second place in the final race, but I did win my heat,” he said.

Markus Mahn was recently having a brainstorming session with his colleagues in Orion’s Coatings team. They wanted to develop a better way to show customers the variety of shades of black that Orion offers and the visual differences.

They eventually came up with the idea of creating a Carbon Black Guide that would provide a sweeping visual overview of the wide variety of pigments.

“After researching the market, it became apparent that none of our competitors offered this kind of resource for customers,” said Markus, director and head of marketing for Coatings systems.

The team developed a 32-page zigzag pamphlet with 102 different coating chips with technical information. The chips are derived from the 34 most popular carbon black pigments, each of which is visualized in black tone, gray and metallic.


“A major challenge was the question of which particular pigments to select since there are many more than just 34 pigments,” Markus said. “The challenge was overcome by involving all the world’s regions in the selection process so that the tool could be used globally.”

The team also consulted with external painters, printers and design agencies outside of Orion as well as internal laboratories, technical marketing and the coloristic staff.

The handy pamphlet was designed so that it can be easily folded up and tucked into the pocket of a lab coat.

At trade shows in 2022, the tool has been received with amazement by customers.

Markus said, “I’ll know that the Carbon Black Guide has been a success if I visit our customers a year later and see that the pamphlet’s corners and edges are worn down and dog-eared because of constant use.”


When Kiran Valluri was 10 years old, one of the world’s worst industrial accidents happened in her home country of India. A gas leak at a pesticide plant killed at least 2,000 people in the central city of Bhopal. She learned about the disaster from her parents, whose morning routine included reading the newspaper to her as she prepared for school.

Kiran felt a powerful urge to help the victims, but over the years, Bhopal faded from her memory. Her interest in mathematics, physics and chemistry inspired her to major in civil engineering in college.

“That’s when everything came back to me about the Bhopol incident,” said Kiran, Orion’s environmental, health and safety leader for the Americas. “That’s why I chose environmental engineering for an MS degree. I’ve worked in the environmental field ever since then.”

Kiran shared her story during a panel discussion at Orion’s principal executive offices in Spring, Texas. The event celebrated the U.N.’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science.  The wide-ranging discussion included topics such as overcoming gender stereotypes, pursuing promotions and making your voice heard in meetings.

The panel was moderated by Nicole Lewis, Orion’s senior director of operations in the Americas, who has a chemical engineering degree, MBA and 20 years of experience in industry. Also on the panel was Jennifer Stroh, Orion’s director of specialty sales and marketing for the Americas. She has a B.S. in chemistry and a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering.

Not ready yet

Women are often denied a promotion because they are told they are “not ready yet.” The panelists discussed how they have overcome such a misperception or bias against them.

“It’s important to find your network, find your group, find your mentor,” Nicole said. “I was fortunate early on in my supervisory roles to find someone who believed in me and would work with me to make sure I was ready. And I still stay in touch with that guy to this day. We probably talk once every couple of weeks.”

Nicole added she also took some risks in her career. “When people said, ‘Hey, I don’t think you’re ready,’ I dug in my heels, and I said, ‘I know I’m ready, and I know I can do it,’ and I did it. Sometimes you have to take those scary moves.”

Kiran noted that men often get promoted for their potential, while women must prove themselves to get the same things. “I hate to say that. You have to volunteer and do additional work. You need to work hard,” she said.

Also important is building good relationships — not only with your direct supervisor but also with a variety of different members of the leadership and management team, Jennifer said.

“Throughout my career, I have made a variety of what I call unsolicited pitches,” she added. “Seeing a problem, digging through the details, realizing how it can be done better, then telling anyone who would listen.”

Becoming a plant manager

The panel discussed the challenges women face becoming a plant manager in the chemicals industry. Nicole, who has worked in the role, said she has seen a shift over the years. Orion has three plant managers who are women.

“Looking at when I got out of school and started working in plants, being the only woman there, if I wore my coveralls out into the plant, all the contractors would say, ‘Who’s this woman in the plant? What is she doing here?’”

Although there has been progress, she said, women still have a ways to go. “I had the opportunity to go to a Society of Women Engineers conference this past year,” Nicole added, “and I met quite a few young engineers who said, ‘I’ve never met a female plant manager.’”

Claiming space in meetings

Studies have reported that during meetings, men interrupt or talk over women much more often than women do it to men. The panelists discussed how they claim their space and protect their airtime.

“If I have a point, I will interrupt,” Kiran said, noting that keeping quiet or feeling intimidated could put the company, employees and the community at risk when it comes to environmental, health and safety issues.

Nicole tries to look on the bright side and recognize that people interrupt because they are passionate and have something to share. “I’ll write down what I want to say. When they are done, I will speak. There are many times when I say, ‘Hey, hang on, I’m almost finished, just let me finish this thought.’ You have to read your audience and understand what’s the other person’s intent.”

Jennifer added that the meeting’s leader should be cognizant that someone is getting cut off and help redirect the discussion. But there are times when you can’t win, she added, and it’s not possible to be heard in a meeting.

“For me, I say the topic isn’t over until I say it’s over, even if the meeting ends,” Jennifer said. “You can still call those individuals. You can still get your point across. Data is your friend. One of my favorite sayings at work and at home is just because you’re loud doesn’t make you right.”

Meet Orion’s Ironman

Dimas Marchi has had demanding jobs at Orion, working as a plant manager for many years in Brazil and now serving as the senior director of global manufacturing excellence.

Despite the heavy workload, he still finds the time to be a world-class Ironman triathlete and marathoner in his age group.

How does he do it?

Almost every day, Dimas wakes up early to train between 4:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. “On the weekends, I’ll do my long runs and bike rides,” he said.

The training is paying off.

In 2022, Dimas ran the Boston Marathon and finished in 2 hours and 53 minutes, an outstanding time on a tough course racing against the best runners in the world. He placed 117 – in the top 5% of his age group, which included 2,297 runners.

Dimas also competed in the 2022 World Championship Ironman triathlon in St. George, Utah.  After his strong performance in the race, he was ranked No. 41 in the world in his age group.

An Ironman race is one of the most challenging events in the world of sports. It starts with a 3.86-kilometer swim. Athletes then ride 180 kilometers on a bike before running a marathon – 42 kilometers.

Dimas said his demanding training regimen actually gives him extra energy for work.

“It’s mentally cleansing and destressing,” he said. “I start my work in the morning more refreshed.”