Minerals are the unsung heroes of
pharmaceuticals. From making a tablet more palatable to
providing treatment for a number of ailments, the focus on
industrial minerals in this multi-billion dollar industry is
While owing to its low volume,
high value nature pharmaceuticals are never going to be
the big business drivers for the worlds largest miners,
for many they offer a significant bonus if the company can
provide a pure, high grade product.
Minerals are used for two general
areas: as a carrier and as a treatment.
Talc, calcium carbonate, and some clays like halloysite are
used as a carrier for medicine in the form of tablets and
pills. However a select few minerals are used as a treatment:
lithium carbonate, for example, is used to treat bipolar
disorder, while magnesia in the form of Milk of
Magnesia cures an upset stomach.
As mentioned earlier, the volumes
are low: in tablets, 3% loading of talc is used while 1,800mg
is an average dose of lithium carbonate. The process to produce
a grade suitable for consumption is complex.
In total around 500 tonnes of
elemental lithium is used in the pharmaceutical sector a
It takes a dedicated
commitment to participate in special applications like
these, Eric Norris, global commercial manager of FMC
Lithium told IM.
It requires an intimate
knowledge of our customers applications, precise
manufacturing, ultra-safe handling procedures, and a consummate
understanding of the market, he added.
For talc, the industry is also
small and specialised.
Although a small user, the
pharmaceutical industry requires highly pure, specialised and
bacteria free talc for tablets, ointments and dusting. The
thermal and chemical inertness of talc makes it an ideal
filler, Vandana Ahuja of leading Indian talc producer,
Golcha Group, explained to IM.
The role of minerals is also
USA based Z-Medica has developed
kaolin-doped bandage for the US military to use in Afghanistan
and Iraq. Kaolins absorptive properties act to absorb
water molecules and thicken the blood to speed up the clotting
The products, branded
QuikClot, are now deployed in the first aid kit of
every US Marine.
The pharmaceutical sector consumes
12,000 tonnes of kaolin a year.
The use of titanium dioxide
(TiO2) derived from the minerals ilmenite and
rutile has increased significantly in the last ten years
as a key UV blocking ingredient in sunscreen and sunblock.
The chemical, more widely used as a
white pigment, physically blocks out the UV radiation and on
average makes up 5% of the total product.
The accompanying table
(p.73) outlines some minerals used in the sector and
their benefits. There are recurring properties of minerals that
the pharmaceutical sector demands and the most common are:
inertness, structure and adsorption.
Today, China is the primary driver
of new business in the pharmaceutical industry. The country is
not only growing rapidly in terms of demand as the poor, rural
population get access to treatment, but also by size and
corporate power of the companies.
The sectors compound annual
growth rate is expected to be 23-26% between 2008-2013 and this
is primarily down to two reasons: health reforms which are
bringing medical care to rural areas, and population migration
to the urban areas.
It is the latter which the Chinese
government is concerned most about. The ability to adequately
care for the population of its rapidly growing cities, its
wealth generating hubs, is paramount for any developed or
And by 2015 it is predicted that
urban areas will be home to more than half its 1.4bn.
population a watershed moment for Chinas industrial
The government is reacting. Having
spent 80bn. yuan ($11bn.) on health care reforms to date, the
central government has pledged 128bn. yuan from its 2010 budget
Pharmaceutical companies are also
reacting to the situation with public offerings. As reported by
the Wall Street Journal, since October 2009, 23
Chinese pharma companies have gone public raising $5.37bn with
Sinopharm Group being the standout giant deal accounting for a
quarter of this value.
Many western pharmaceutical
manufacturers are also increasing their footprint in the
country. GlaxoSmithKline, for example, is looking to hit the
Chinese market with its vaccination products while striking a
series of joint-venture (j-v) agreements with domestic
Western mineral producers will also
be taking note. The talc industry, for example, has seen a
similar trend with west-east partnerships. Mondo Minerals BV
and Liaoning based Beihai Group have a j-v agreement to focus
on value added talc which is used primarily as a carrier
mineral in pills. Indian talc producers, such as Golcha Group,
have struck similar deals.
This situation is mirrored in India
which has tipped the next decade to be the one where it emerges
as a economic superpower (p.28: India enters a deciding
Low volume, high
Around 3-7 % of Indias total
talc output (800,000 tpa in 2009) is used in the pharma sector,
equating to 24-56,000 tonnes. This exemplifies the low volume
and high value dynamics of the industry.
While some leading domestic mineral
producers supply pharmaceutical grades, it is a technical
business that is not worth the effort for many.
In terms of pharmaceutical grade
lithium production, only the biggest companies are involved in
it such as Chemetall GmbH, FMC Corp., and SQM SA.
SQMs Andres Yaksic explained
to IM: Butyl lithium demand will respond
to growth in India and China, but I do not expect high
Pharmaceuticals is set to remain a
niche, high value and specialised sector for the minerals
industry. The stringent demands from the end users ensures the
number of suppliers remain limited, and is not attracting new
entrants at a fast pace.
For the users, the basic properties of industrial minerals
will continue to remain attractive. It is their versatility
which will keep them on the edge of new developments.
A snapshot of minerals used in
||Base for medicated dentures
||Hollow Structure, inertness, nano size
||Filled and used as a carrier
||Adhesiveness, inertness, adsorbant
||Binder, thickener in gels
||Fluorine in toothpaste and tablets; HFC
(Hydrofluorocarbons) a propellant in asthma
||Carrier: a dilute
||Plaster of Paris bandages
||Treatment: disinfectant for wounds
||Treatment: bipolar disorder
||Dilutant: Milk of magnesia
||Tablets: supplement for magnesium difficiency
|Soda Ash/Sodium bicarbonate
||Food: baking powder
||Inertness: rubber stoppers
||Carrier: powder base
||Tablets (3% loading)
||Physical properties (particles)
||Suncreen: UV blocker