When mentioning synthetic materials, people normally think of textiles, plastics and other things made from petroleum.
But many commonly seen biological substances, like corn, are also being used to make synthetic materials. And a biological technology company in Shanxi province is using corn to do just that.
At the showroom of Shanghai-based Cathay Biotech's branch company in Shanxi, a wide range of products, including scarfs, garments, handbags, eyeglass frames and badminton rackets, are on display.
According to Zang Huiqing, vice-president of Cathay Biotech, such finished products are mostly made from corn. The mass production of the company's products will begin in the near future in its manufacturing facility in the Shanxi Transformation and Comprehensive Reform Demonstration Zone.
At the showroom, Zang points to a set of eyeglass frames, saying that "the frames are made from biologically synthesized materials, which have a similar strength to metal and can be used for many products".
One of Cathay Biotech's largest production facilities in China is the Shanxi Synthetic Biological Industry Park. The park has a total funding of more than 60 billion yuan ($9.3 billion) and is currently under construction in the zone.
The project was established in cooperation with the administrative committee of the demonstration zone.
Zang calls this facility the "dream works of both Cathay and Shanxi", as it helps to "fulfill Cathay's dream of active expansion and Shanxi's dream of low-carbon development".
"Unlike most of the synthetic materials made from petroleum, we make similar products from plants," the executive said.
She explained that the bio-based polyamide－the basic ingredient for producing a variety of products－is extracted from corn and the stalks of other crops.
"Such a technique can substantially reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other polluting and greenhouse gases compared to production using petroleum," Zang said.
When talking about Cathay Biotech's dream of expansion, its board chairman Liu Xiucai said the company hopes to develop a bio-based materials industry as big as petrochemicals.
The Shanxi Synthetic Biological Industry Park is located in the township of Donghuangshui in Taiyuan's Yangqu county, which is part of the Shanxi Transformation and Comprehensive Reform Demonstration Zone.
Covering 11.43 square kilometers, the park began construction in October last year.
Liu Zhijie, deputy general manager of the park, said a number of core facilities are expected to begin operations at the end of this year, including plants for corn processing, production of polyamide and other downstream products.
Cathay's collaboration with Shanxi is not limited to the production sector. The company is partnering with Shanxi University to establish a school of biology for the research of fundamental sciences and training industrial professionals.
Cathay recently helped to launch a synthetic biology research academy in cooperation with the Shanxi Transformation and Comprehensive Reform Demonstration Zone. The academy is designed to develop new products and technologies while sharing its technologies with local players, in hopes of nurturing downstream businesses and promoting Shanxi's competitiveness in the biotech sector.
Shanxi's industrial officials said the synthetic biology industry is expected to become a huge industry with an annual output value surpassing 100 billion yuan in the next few years.