On December 12, 2014, Professor Zhao Dajian of the School of Life Sciences at Nankai University passed away due to illness. However, there was almost no media coverage, and no journalist wrote any articles using emotional rhetoric such as “the father of Chinese xanthan gum”. Today, the Chinese xanthan gum industry, which ranks first in the world in terms of production, has not published any mourning articles.

You may have never heard of xanthan gum, but you and your children likely eat it frequently because it commonly exists in a wide range of popular foods such as ice cream, ketchup, jelly, yogurt, soy sauce, mixed grain porridge, cheese, bread, and cake. Xanthan gum is also widely used in various industries such as coatings and paints, fire extinguishers, toothpaste, cosmetics, ceramics, papermaking, printing and dyeing, petroleum, and so on.

Throughout the 1980s, China relied almost entirely on imports for their supply of natural rubber, with prices averaging around $15,000 per ton. Meanwhile, the monthly income of a university lecturer was only around $10-20.

Today, the price of natural rubber has dropped to as low as approximately $1,500 per metric ton. China’s production of natural rubber currently ranks as the world’s highest, and in 2015, it was subject to an anti-dumping investigation launched by the US Department of Commerce as part of a counterattack against the US.

What has happened in these years? I am going to start telling the story of the Chinese senior scientists and the subsequent explosion of the Chinese xanthan gum industry.

Introduction Link to heading

Because food additives give us a scare, I will first briefly introduce xanthan gum here.

Xanthan Gum (also known under different names such as yellow gum and hansheng gum) is a soluble biological fiber that comes from biotechnology. It is produced through the fermentation of specific strains of bacteria on materials such as corn starch. Strictly speaking, this fermentation process is not fundamentally different from that used to make alcoholic beverages or yogurt. Xanthan Gum is a purely natural substance.

The FDA has approved it as a safe food additive for almost 60 years. Due to its safety, the FDA has also approved xanthan gum as a pharmaceutical additive, used for thickening and shaping many medicines, such as cough syrups.

However, this article is not meant to whitewash biotech products.

One, Link to heading

Xanthan gum has a very unique property in that it immediately becomes thick and sticky when a small amount is added to water. To exaggerate a little, adding xanthan gum to juice turns it into jam and adding it to milk makes it like sour yogurt.

In academic terms, it is called a thickening agent. Additionally, xanthan gum is an effective stabilizer, emulsifier, and foam enhancer. The latter is of great help in achieving the softness of cakes and bread.

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Due to the widely varying uses and market value of xanthan gum, Chinese scientists who had been suppressed for many years began actively engaging in relevant research work at the beginning of the reform and opening up period. Dozens of institutions, including Nankai University, Shandong University, Wuxi Light Industry College, and the Institute of Biological Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, carried out relevant research through different pathways. In 1979, the initial report on the fermentation of xanthomonas campestris to produce acidic polysaccharides by the Biological Department of Nankai University was a milestone article, marking the beginning of our country’s isolation of xanthan gum strains. Subsequently, the decades-long efforts of Professor Zhao Dajian and others at Nankai University laid a solid theoretical foundation for basic research on xanthan gum.

Biological adhesives can generally be divided into plant-based, animal-based and microbial-based adhesives. Plant-based adhesives include guar gum, arabic gum, rubber, and agar, which are obtained through cultivation and harvesting. Well-known animal-based adhesives include gelatin, which has lost its reputation due to the use in the production of leather shoes, and donkey-hide glue, which claims to treat various diseases. Our protagonist today, xanthan gum, is a microbial-based adhesive produced through fungal fermentation. Microbial-based adhesives are less affected by regional environmental yield and are a good target for the biotechnology industry.

Three, Link to heading

In 1986, Shandong Food Fermentation Industry Research and Design Institute and Nankai University collaborated to conduct research and development. They achieved the first non-economical production at Yantai Microbial Polysaccharide Plant (Yantai MSG Plant), marking a significant breakthrough in the industrialization of xanthan gum. Nankai University and Jiangsu Jinhu MSG Plant also attempted to produce food-grade xanthan gum. However, due to immature fermentation processes and post-extraction technologies, extremely high energy consumption, and astonishing cost loss of raw materials such as ethanol, the production was only in the pilot stage, and the high costs made the product uncompetitive. These early attempts were not considered successful.

Technological progress has always been obtained through continuous failures. Shandong Food Fermentation Industry Research and Design Institute was a small research institute with only a few dozen scientists back then. Through this experience, it later became the source of technology for the explosive growth of Shandong Huangyuan Gum industry. They also made significant breakthroughs in the industrialization of products such as itaconic acid.

Sun Liqiang, the former factory director of Yantai Monosodium Glutamate Factory, also became the leader of the Zhangyu Group for more than 20 years.

Four. Link to heading

In 1983, researcher Cheng Guisun (referred to as Professor Cheng hereafter) returned to China from Switzerland and began several microbiological research projects, including one on xanthan gum. At the time, she did not know how much hardship xanthan gum would bring her in the future, nor did she know that no one in today’s flourishing xanthan gum industry in China would mention her name.

The strain of guayule latex is called Paracoccus yeei, but it is not a single strain, rather a population of hundreds or thousands of different variations of bacteria. In Europe and America, researchers select different strains based on their latex output and properties to create targeted products, thus increasing profits.

Professor Cheng noticed that the biggest problem in China’s xanthan gum industry is the excessive consumption of ethanol in extracting the gum from the fermentation broth. One ton of xanthan gum requires the consumption of one ton or even several tons of ethanol, which is very costly. This method of consumption makes economic mass production elusive.

Professor Cheng took a different approach and started by guiding the mutation of yellow monobacteria in an attempt to find a variety that can extract glue without the need for alcohol. After years of effort, they finally found a strain that can settle colloids simply by adjusting the pH value and has a high yield. Hydrochloric acid is a super cheap substance, making mass production economically feasible. In 1987, Professor Cheng and her assistant Liu Xiaoyang applied for China Patent CN 87106960.

Unfortunately, it was the 1980s. The industrialization of technology was a towering obstacle at the time: state-owned enterprises had low efficiency and complex processes, private enterprises were few and far between, lacking money and manpower, all kinds of equipment were backward and incredibly outdated, and there was no such thing as venture capital (VC).

Five, Link to heading

Professor Cheng comes from a family of scholars. His father was a professor in the Vehicle Research Group at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and was an expert who had studied in the United States before the liberation. In the 1950s, Cheng was admitted to the Department of Biology at Fudan University, where the head of the department at the time was Dr. Tan Jiazhen, who had studied in Morgan Laboratory, the founder of modern genetics.

There was a regrettable period in the history of the biological world. In the 1950s, with the help of the Soviet Union, all universities in China underwent a massive Soviet-style departmental adjustment in 1952, and textbooks were also changed to Soviet-style. Meanwhile, Lysenkoism, promoted by Soviet scientist Lysenko, denied the existence of genes and was widely accepted.

Due to the fact that Morgan was an American, the entire academic community of China sparked a wave of criticism against Morgan’s genetics for ideological reasons. At that time, only Fudan University’s Tan Jiazhen agreed with the theory of genetics and relayed the groundbreaking DNA discovery by Watson and Crick to students. The tragic outcome was that molecular biology and genetics in almost all other universities in China stagnated for 20 years.

In 1968, Professor Cheng’s father, an early expert in China’s railway industry, was persecuted to death during the Cultural Revolution due to the stigma of having previously studied in the United States.

People who have gone through hardships often have a never-give-up personality. Professor Cheng is determined to promote his “low-cost xanthan gum production technology.”

Six, Link to heading

In the 1980s, there were over 200 MSG factories in China that extracted sodium glutamate from corn starch fermentation, which was very cheap. Unlike today, restaurants were proud to serve dishes without MSG. Due to extremely limited food options at the time, MSG was the most important seasoning agent.

Starting from poorly managed monosodium glutamate factories, Professor Cheng and Liu Xiaoyang began a long journey of searching for a production method that was similar to monosodium glutamate. Profitable big corporations were not an option, and after years of hard work, they finally found a foothold for the production of xanthan gum in several run-down factories in Xinhua, Hebei, Baoji, Shaanxi, and Jiangxi.

In that era, it took 20 hours by train from Beijing to Shanghai, let alone the hardships of traveling to these remote areas by train and car. The shortage of technical personnel, difficult accommodation conditions, and unbearable food in small places exhausted Professor Cheng and Liu Xiaoyang who were in their 50s at the time. Professor Cheng transformed himself from a scientist into an engineering technician, teaching hands-on from cleaning and sterilizing fermentation tanks, breeding, to choosing centrifuges and pressing machines, solving problems one by one, and eventually achieving the first successful economic production of xanthan gum.

Due to the real breakthrough in the industry, Professor Cheng’s project was selected for the National Torch Program in 1990. In 1992, Huangyuan resin from Xinhua, Hebei was listed as a national new product. In 1993, Professor Cheng won one of the highest national awards in science and technology, the National Invention Award, and received recognition and audience with the country’s top leaders and all standing committee members at the National Science and Technology Conference.

Seven, Link to heading

Until the mid-to-late 1990s, due to low cost factors, Hebei Xinhua Biochemical Factory and Jiangxi MSG Factory occupied over 70% of China’s production share of xanthan gum.

Today, the Hebei Xinhua Biochemical Plant has been renamed as Hebei Xinhua Biochemical Co., Ltd. This company, located in a remote small county town over 100 kilometers away from Xingtai, Hebei, miraculously owns one of the largest domestic industrial production enterprises of Xanthan Gum. Its clients include multinational giants such as PetroChina, Sinopec, Schlumberger, and BASF.

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As we entered the 2000s, with the importation and advancement of a large number of devices, the stainless steel tanks and pipes became more reliable, greatly reducing the loss of alcohol in the production of food-grade xanthan gum. Additionally, the innovation of laboratory technology has greatly improved the level of bacterial strain selection and cultivation. This has enabled the economic mass production of food-grade xanthan gum in China.

As mentioned earlier, the Shandong Food Fermentation Industry Research and Design Institute has become the technological source of Zhongxuan in Zibo after more than ten years of persistent research and breakthroughs. The branching out of Shandong fermentation industry technicians, as well as obtaining equipment and resources from Yantai Monosodium Glutamate Factory, were also reasons for the rise of Fufeng Group.

Originally, FuFeng Group was just a monosodium glutamate factory in Junan, a poverty-stricken area in the Yimeng Mountains of Shandong Province. By continuously acquiring old equipment to expand production capacity, it effectively acquired many small monosodium glutamate factories at low cost and eventually became the king of monosodium glutamate. In 2003, when the technological conditions were ripe in all aspects, FuFeng decisively entered the xanthan gum industry and achieved a highly competitive position by strategically utilizing the resources of corn and coal regions.

Nine, Link to heading

Currently in China, there are several large-scale enterprises producing natural gum rubber, which can be grouped by their headquarters. Shandong is home to three such companies: Fufeng, Zhongxuan, and Youkai; while Hebei has two: Meihua and Xinhe. It is unusual that the industry is concentrated in northern China, as typically China’s private enterprises are more developed in the provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Guangdong. Excluding the influence of raw materials, we can also infer that the scientific community has played a significant role in the layout of the industry.

Today, Chinese companies occupy approximately 40% of the global market share, ranking first in the world. American companies come in second with an approximate 35% share, mostly comprising of chemical giants such as CP Kelco, ADM, Cargill, and DuPont, among others. Other major players are European companies. With a wide range of products, American products compete less directly with Chinese products. In 2013, due to the accusations of CP Kelco, an established American xanthan gum manufacturer, the US Department of Commerce conducted an anti-dumping investigation against Chinese and Austrian manufacturers. Ironically, in 2016, CP Kelco’s Shandong branch was also found guilty of dumping products in the US, demonstrating the true competitiveness of the fermentation industry in Shandong.

Ten, Link to heading

When applying for patents related to yellow glue, both Zhongxuan and Fufeng referenced or were referenced by Professor Cheng’s patent. At that time, Professor Cheng’s patent was written in great detail, without any hidden technical details. However, Professor Cheng’s personal benefits from yellow glue over the years amounted to less than ten thousand yuan, even after careful calculation.

Many joys and sorrows brought upon by historical eras are indescribable, but the outcome is still satisfactory. Perhaps in the near future, our society can stop idolizing real estate and capital giants, and truly rely on technology as the foundation of our nation, ultimately competing with European and American powers.