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Matthey Closes The Loop In China

British firm commissions Shanghai facility to make and recycle catalysts

by Jean-François Tremblay
November 28, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 48

Credit: Jean-Franqois Tremblay/C&EN
Bridges (left) and Zhou pose in front of the company’s new facilities in Shanghai.
James Bridges and Helen Zhou pose in front of catalyst producer Johnson Matthey's new facilities in Shanghai
Credit: Jean-Franqois Tremblay/C&EN
Bridges (left) and Zhou pose in front of the company’s new facilities in Shanghai.

Catalyst producer Johnson Matthey is starting up a plant in China that will both produce catalysts for the drug industry and recycle them. The British company hopes the site will boost its competitiveness among customers that manufacture pharmaceuticals in China.

The facilities will help speed up delivery times to customers in China. In addition, the recycling service means that customers will find it easier to recapture the precious-metal content of spent Matthey pharmaceutical catalysts, which usually contain platinum or palladium. In the past, Chinese customers had to either recycle their spent catalysts at Matthey’s overseas plants or find a local firm able to recover the precious metals.

“We are now offering customers the full loop,” says James Bridges, Matthey’s production manager for pharmaceutical catalysts. The company does not yet have the ability in China to put make new catalysts from the precious-metal-rich ash it obtains when it burns spent catalysts, he says. Matthey has to sell the ash to contractors after precisely ascertaining its metal content. But the customers’ experience is just as if Matthey were recovering the precious metals.

The pharmaceutical catalyst plant is located in Shanghai’s Songjiang district, a once-faraway industrial suburb that is now linked by subway to the rest of the city. The facilities account for a small part of the company’s expanding manufacturing presence at the site.

The company has invested $135 million in Songjiang since 1998 to produce various catalysts, including auto emission control catalysts, a booming market in China. The investment in pharmaceutical catalysts, which involved the construction of an enormous building with room for expansion, represented $9.5 million of the total. Matthey plans to expand further in Songjiang.

Songjiang was once famous for its industry, but with universities setting up campuses in the district, industrial companies are now merely tolerated.

“Earlier on, Songjiang was welcoming all types of industries to come and set up here,” says Helen Zhou, general manager of Matthey’s Songjiang site. “But now Songjiang emphasizes greenness, and that makes the environmental targets stringent.”

The air emissions rules Matthey must adhere to in Shanghai are stricter than those in the U.K., Bridges claims. Within that regulatory context, it took months for the company to establish its green credentials and obtain a permit to burn catalysts for the purpose of recycling.

But it is precisely China’s increasingly hard-to-meet environmental standards that are helping Matthey’s business in China, says Hongyu Huang, a Matthey technical sales representative for pharmaceutical catalysts. “Our catalysts enable pharmaceutical producers to implement more efficient processes that generate less wasted material,” he says. “The catalysts help our customers meet their environmental targets and use less energy.”



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