Customized chemicals

When a major pharmaceutical company, or even a small biotech, wants to take a product from the lab to the next level of production, those firms often turn to Albemarle Corp.’s Process Development Center in Baton Rouge.

“Usually they haven’t made the materials much at all before so they just want us to take it and run with it, to be their producer,” said Kurt Hoeprich, global business manager of pharmaceuticals and electronic chemicals. “Or they have made it in fairly small amounts, just initially, and they really don’t want to do that anymore. They want it transferred over to us because we have better capabilities to take it forward.”

Those capabilities include the expertise of roughly 150 chemists, chemical engineers and other engineers at the Baton Rouge center. About one-third of those experts have PhDs.

Senior Strategic Communications Manager Ashley Mendoza puts it this way: “We have a lot of brainpower concentrated in a small space.”

Albemarle’s fine chemistry services division and the Baton Rouge Process Development Center provide building blocks for new pharmaceutical products such as anti-inflammatory drugs and treatments for cardiovascular disease. Albemarle also specializes in high-purity chemical materials used in making televisions, smartphones, batteries and other consumer electronics products.

Custom chemistry work is a small but important part of Albemarle’s businesses. The Process Development Center performs work for most of the company’s divisions.

John Parks, research and development director, custom services, said part of the center’s work involves optimizing the manufacturing process.

This may mean finding a way to speed up production, lowering manufacturing costs while increasing quality and/or safety. This work is usually done on a very small scale at one of Albemarle’s labs.

Once the process is defined, Albemarle scales up production at one of its pilot plants. Albemarle continues testing and refining the process. When Albemarle is satisfied with the process, the specialty chemicals maker can help the client begin commercial production in one of two ways: at one of Albemarle’s manufacturing plants around the globe or by teaching the customer how to design a manufacturing facility around the process Albemarle has developed for it.

“Our ability to take a customer from an idea to a lab to a pilot plant and finally to full-scale production is a unique benefit of our Process Development Center in Baton Rouge and one of the distinguishing features of Albemarle,” Mendoza said.

Each year, Albemarle does 30 to 60 of these product development projects; the Baton Rouge Custom Services Group handles about a third of those, Parks said. The company can’t disclose those products due to confidentiality agreements.

The projects that are bigger in complexity frequently end up in Baton Rouge.

Some of these compounds involve very complicated molecules, Parks said. A simple project may require one or two chemical steps, while a more complicated project may involve a dozen.

“Once you start stacking up numbers of different chemical steps the complexity level really goes up,” Parks said. “Another level of complexity is the purity level. If it needs many, many ‘9s’ of percent purity — 99.999 percent — that gets pretty complicated.”

Parks said the Process Development Center’s set-up allows it to handle that many projects each year.

The center has a set of general-purpose, flexible pilot plant equipment that can be easily modified for each product, Parks said. If Albemarle has to add another filter or piece of equipment, the company can buy or rent it, use it for a month, dismantle it, then set up for another project.

Albemarle doesn’t disclose the specifics of what it has spent on its facilities, but it would take “tens of millions of dollars” to replicate the Baton Rouge facility.

Hoeprich said the reason Albemarle has done well and continues to do well with this business and the Product Development Center is that customers don’t want to build those capabilities — from the people to the equipment.

“It’s very time-consuming, very costly. It’s much more efficient for them to outsource the effort to us,” Hoeprich said.

The goal for Albemarle’s product development efforts is to make sure the company winds up being the commercial manufacturer of those products, Parks said. And typically, that’s what happens.