Pharma-minerals focus

By Simon Moores
Published: Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The versatility of non-metallic minerals ensures they remain central to pharmaceuticals developments

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 growing.

While owing to its low volume, high value nature pharmaceuticals are never going to be the big business drivers for the world’s 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 year.

“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 customer’s 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 evolving.

USA based Z-Medica has developed kaolin-doped bandage for the US military to use in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kaolin’s absorptive properties act to absorb water molecules and thicken the blood to speed up the clotting process.

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.

Market drivers

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 sector’s 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 transition economies.

And by 2015 it is predicted that urban areas will be home to more than half its 1.4bn. population a watershed moment for China’s industrial revolution.

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 on this.

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 companies.

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 decade).

Low volume, high value

Around 3-7 % of India’s 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.

SQM’s Andres Yaksic explained to IM: “Butyl lithium demand will respond to growth in India and China, but I do not expect high rates.”

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 pharmaceuticals

Mineral Property Use
Calcium carbonate Dilutant Capsules
Buffering/disoultion aid Tablets
Inertness Base for medicated dentures
Kaolin Absorbant Tablets; bandages
Halloysite Hollow Structure, inertness, nano size Filled and used as a carrier
Attapulgite Adhesiveness, inertness, adsorbant Tablets
Bentonite Absorbant, Isotropy Binder, thickener in gels
Fluorspar Non-toxic, non-flammable Fluorine in toothpaste and tablets; HFC (Hydrofluorocarbons) a propellant in asthma inhalers;
Gypsum Carrier: a dilute Capsules/tablets
Adhesivness Plaster of Paris bandages
Iodine Chemistry Treatment: disinfectant for wounds
Lithium Chemistry Treatment: bipolar disorder
Magnesia pH level Dilutant: Milk of magnesia
Mg content Tablets: supplement for magnesium difficiency
Soda Ash/Sodium bicarbonate pH level Tablets;
CO2 content Food: baking powder
Talc Inertness: rubber stoppers Bottle stoppers
Carrier: powder base Tablets (3% loading)
Titanium dioxide Physical properties (particles) Suncreen: UV blocker