Cellets are inert starter cores made of microcrystalline cellulose (MCC). They play an important role in new formulations of solid dosage forms. As a carrier system for actives, the chemical inertness and surface smoothness are crucial parameters. Additionally, high level of robustness and sphericity simplify formulations and technical processes, such as fluidized bed technologies for coating and layering. In a joint study between the University of Hertfordshire and Freeman Technology (a Micromeritics company), the effect of pellets’ size on the behavior in a Wurster process is explained. Wurster fluid bed coating of Cellets with particle size larger than 400 µm is unproblematic. However, decreasing the particle size begins to complicate the coating process. So, powder rheology was used to compare Cellets with different particle sizes in terms of their effect on the powder flow in the Wurster fluid bed coater. For deeper knowledge, we strongly recommend reading investigations by V. Mohylyuk et al. [1]


Cellets® 90, 100, 200 and 350 (D50-size from 94 µm to 424 μm, Ingredientpharm, Switzerland). MCC powder Avicel® PH-102 (supplied by IMCD UK Ltd., UK) is included in the investigations, as it is widely used in industry and can be used by readers for comparison with other studies.

Wurster fluid-bed

Wurster process is a bottom-spray method, employed as a coating technology, for layering powder-like particles in a fluidized bed system (Figure 1). The process can be separated in different zones of mass flow, such as the down-flow zone or the horizontal transport zone. The flowability in these zones is crucial for homogeneous and efficient coating of the particles.


Figure 1: Wurster process is a bottom-spray method for layering powder-like particles in a fluidized bed system.

Hereby, the size of particles might play an important role. The narrow size distribution of MCC pellets is shown in Figure 2 and Figure 3. Measured data is presented in Table 1.


Volume weightened size distribution of Cellets 90 (red, diamonds), Cellets 100 (orange, triangles), Cellets 200 (blue, circles), Cellets 350 (green, squares).

The compact Cellets with fair sphericity, zero friability and a high level of surface smoothness show a fair mass flow rate which is almost independent of particle size at given experimental conditions and was determined by the gravitational funnel method. The reference MCC powder did not flow through the orifice.

Excipient PSD
Flow rate
Avicel PH-102 115a 1.85 No flow
Cellets 90 94b 0.44 1.76
Cellets 100 163b 0.27 2.06
Cellets 200 270b 0.34 1.89
Cellets 350 424b 0.22 1.83

Table 1: Particle size distribution (D50) value and span by laser diffraction (a) and digital microscopy (b), and the mass flow rate by gravitational funnel method (5 mm diameter orifice) for the investigated excipients.

Impact of the Cellets’ size

The impact of the Cellets’ size on bulk powder behavior can only be estimated by screening additional parameters. In addition to the mass flow rate, standard pharmacopoeia methods such as bulk/tapped density were initially employed for the characterization of the powder’s properties. This was extended to rotating drum measurements providing the dynamic angle of repose and dynamic cohesivity index. Via powder rheology the conditioned bulk density, basic flowability energy, specific energy, pressure drop, permeability and compressibility (Figure 4) were obtained [1].

By picking the compressibility of Cellets at an applied force of 10 kPa normal stress, two key points need to be mentioned: (a) smaller particle size induces a higher rate of compressibility; (b) Cellets are less compressible than the reference MCC powder.

These findings are part of the open question on powder flow in a Wurster process. It is expected, that Cellets with a lower compressibility will result in better flow behavior in the fluidized bed.


Microscopic imaging of Cellets 100 (top left), 200 (top right), 350 (bottom left) with 1 mm scale bar and 100x magnification. Bottom right: surface of Cellets 350 in 1000x magnification.


Compressibility at 10 kPa normal stress on Cellets with varying particle size (D50) and Avicel® PH-102.


The flow of Cellets’ through a Wurster fluid-bed coater is likely to show improved performance as the Cellets’ particle size increases. Among others, a lower compressibility demonstrates a rheological behavior which is superior to MCC.


[1] Mohylyuk V, Styliari ID, Novykov D, Pikett R, Dattani R. Assessment of the effect of Cellets’ particle size on the flow in a Wurster fluid-bed coater via powder rheology. J D Deliv Sci Tec. 2019; 54: 101320, doi: 10.1016/j.jddst.2019.101320.


Dr. Bastian Arlt, Glatt Pharmaceutical Services, Werner-Glatt-Straße 1, 79589 Binzen.

The renaissance of micropellets is promoting innovative technologies

In recent years, formulations based on pellets and micropellets have been the trend. New technologies make it possible to circumvent property rights for active ingredients and are therefore very popular with pharmaceutical customers. But which technologies are the most important?

Pellets are the jack-of-alltrades of solid dosage forms. Positioned somewhere between powder and granulate, they make bitter medicine more palatable and can even awaken a child’s instinct to play when the dosage forms are imaginative enough. One well-known example is the Xstraw, a plastic tube shaped like a drinking straw which is filled with pellets of active ingredient, through which children or elderly people can take in the medicine with water. Pellets in tablets are also making a splash – hybrids which combine all the advantages of both dosage forms. The pioneers in the development of these formulations, known as Multiple Unit Pellet Systems (or MUPS for short), was Astra Zeneca in 1999. Their move to embed the proton pump inhibitor Omeprazole in micropellets and then compress these pellets into immediate release tablets was an award-winning one at the time. The development of MUPS and Xstraw symbolizes the impetus pellets have fueled in recent years.

Klaus N. Möller, Head of Business Development at Glatt in Binzen / Germany, explains: “New excipients, coating materials and sophisticated processes allow us to extend the patent protection period and to make the dosage form more attractive.“

The number of patents registered yearly for pellet-based formulations has increased exponentially and is set to continue. According to research performed by IMS Health, the market for OSD (Oral Solid Dosage Forms) is growing by 6 to 8 percent every year. The number of drugs approved by the FDA also reflect this trend: in 2015, more than half were solid products.

Pellets, as defined by pharmacy guru Prof. Peter Kleinbudde are “an isometric agglomerate of powder particles in an approximate spherical or cylindrical form”, and are a task for perfectionists. The smoother and rounder the pellets, the better they are at fulfilling their purpose. The equipment manufacturer Glatt and their specialists from Pharmaceutical Services have been actively ursuing the subject for years.

There are two fundamental ways of making active ingredient pellets: direct pelletization, in which the powdered active ingredient and excipient combine in a matrix, and active ingredient layering, in which uses side spray or Wurster technology to apply the active ingredient to a starter core of sugar or microcrystalline cellulose.

A case for the specialists

One interesting process variant for matrix pellets is the extrusion of wet granulate in a basket extruder and subsequent rounding in a spheronizer. Möller elucidates: “Continuous wet granulation, followed by extrusion, spheronization and drying now make it possible to perform continuous processes”. Active ingredient pellets made like this can then be covered with a functional coating, be continuously mixed with excipients and be directly compressed into a MUPS tablet. The challenge is to avoid separation of the ingredients and destruction of the tablets during pressing.

Glatt, whose portfolio comprises all granulation and pellet manufacturing techniques, has spent recent years developing additional ways of “fine tuning” the pellet process and has opened up a range of new, interesting possibilities for the lifecycle management of active ingredients.

Pellets and micropellets can be further processed into a wide range

Pellets and micropellets can be further processed into a wide range

Applying the final touches

But what differentiates the manufacturing of granulates from the manufacturing of pellets? From a pharmaceutical point of view, both processes are closely related and are only separated by the form of the particle, since the ideal shape for pellets is a sphere. There are also definite commonalities in procedure. As Möller explains: “The fluidized bed can be used for both granulation and pelletization. This is why we configure fluidized bed machines on request to be multipurpose installations which then allow the continuous manufacturing of pellets. The individual process modules for direct pelletization with rotor technology, for layering active ingredient and for pellet coating with Wurster technology or the simple drying of wet granulates can be added as necessary. Wurster technology has been used in practice for many years: it is a fluidized bed technique in which starter cores or active ingredient pellets are sprayed with a insists. Möller says: “This method is robust and, because the process is so stable, it’s generally the most popular way to process pellets.”

Depending on the composition of the tablets, processing can last anywhere between eight and ten hours. The knack is knowing how to optimize the efficiency and times of the production process. Additionally, Möller recommends timely expert assistance during the development of the pellet formulation and the production process: “Right from the beginning, it will help to avoid mistakes and to keep an eye on process times and manufacturing costs”.

Micropellets and more

Glatt’s development team demonstrated how to refine an established process with the fluidized bed agglomeration technique known as MicroPx. The trick is to use the Conti process, which was conceived in Pharmaceutical Services’ laboratories in Binzen: first, the active ingredient/excipient liquid is spray-dried to a very fine product dust in a fluidized bed and agglomerated into tiny primary particles. The micropellets then build up, layer by layer, until the desired size is reached. The heart of this technology is a zigzag classifier which continuously ejects particles of sufficient size from the process, while simultaneously allowing smaller particles to reenter the process chamber where they continue to grow. Möller explains that the result of this method are high dosage active ingredient pellets in the size range of 100 to 400 μm with a narrow particle size distribution and content uniformity of a consistent 90 to 95 percent. This means that one significant limitation of former times is now no longer an issue: for many years, the volume of a pellet- filled capsule was larger — and therefore much harder to swallow — than the equivalent tablet with the same dose and composition. The use of microencapsulation, which changes bitter-tasting active ingredients into tasteless microparticles, means the taste is much improved now, too. Micropellets can be also pressed into tablets or MUPS tablets which already begin disintegration in the mouth. But the reason pharmaceutical companies find the MicroPx process so exciting is that it makes completely new formulations possible and therefore allows the legal circumvention of property rights. The technology experts have long known the secret to the perfect pellet, too, an answer provided by Complex Perfect Spheres Technology (CPS). CPS is a souped-up rotor process for fluidized bed machines that uses direct pelletization to yield functionalized pellets and micropellets which are perfectly round and smooth. Unlike classic rotor technology, the modified technique uses a tapered rotating disc which allows the movement of particles to be directed and pelletization to be performed to a defined endpoint. The results are perfectly spherical pellets of exactly defined sizes of between 100 and 1500 μm and extremely narrow size distribution. This is how Glatt’s own Cellets of microcrystalline cellulose are created, which are used as starter cores for pellets and in the Wurster process, for example — thus completing the formulation cycle.


Klaus Möller, Head of Business Development Glatt Process Technology Pharma



Starter beads such as pellets made of microcrystalline cellulose (MCC) are frequently used in the formulation of oral drug delivery systems, e.g. multiparticulates [1] or multi-unit pellet system (MUPS) tablets [2]. Certain properties are requested to MCC pellets. We shed some light on sphericity size and friability in this note.

Starter beads for MUPS tablets

MUPS tablets consist of pellets which are compressed – assisted by excipients such as disintegrants and fillers. The pellets used are usually functional coated to achieve desired drug release profiles.


Top: Inert Cellets® 100 (100-200 µm, left) in comparison with another MCC sphere (75-212 µm, right). Bottom: Inert Cellets® 200 (200-350 µm, left) in comparison with another MCC sphere (150-300 µm).

Figure 1: Top: Inert Cellets® 100 (100-200 µm, left) in comparison with another MCC sphere (75-212 µm, right). Bottom: Inert Cellets® 200 (200-350 µm, left) in comparison with another MCC sphere (150-300 µm).

The characteristics of the starter bead as a neutral carrier should therefore include high sphericity (Figure 1), constant particle size distribution and smooth surface. These aspects count especially for the formulation of low dosed highly active APIs.

For the application in MUPS tablets small size and high mechanical stability (low friability) are of interest to achieve desired drug loading and avoid film damage during compression.


Any question relating to optimized drug load and coating layers of pellets is a question of size and sphericity of the starter beads.

So, what is the main influence of size? Size needs to be considered for achieving desired drug load in relation to a total dimension of the pellet. While the total dimension of the pellet is mainly defined by the application – e.g. processing as a capsule, tablet or sachet –, the initial pellet size defines the maximum thickness of coating levels (Figure 2). Size might also be a matter of content uniformity with low dosed API and also needs to be mentioned by means of processability, which is in particular electrostatic loading or sticking. Particle size distribution influences the dissolution profile.


Figure 2: Sketch of a functionally coated pellet. The size of the initial pellet (green) defines the maximum thickness of all coating layers (blue) which may contain API and excipients, as well.

Figure 2: Sketch of a functionally coated pellet. The size of the initial pellet (green) defines the maximum thickness of all coating layers (blue) which may contain API and excipients, as well.


Sphericity is a strong parameter which influence depends on drug loading and coating levels. Also for the control of dissolution profile where specific surface area and content uniformity play important roles, the influence of sphericity needs to be understood (Figure 3). Please do not forget, that with decreasing sphericity, the flow probabilities of powders are decreasing (powder rheology), which might affect process properties such as powder transport.


Figure 3: Sketch of non-spherical starter beads (green) with coating layers (blue). Coating layer thickness and dissolution profiles are hard to control in this case.

Figure 3: Sketch of non-spherical starter beads (green) with coating layers (blue). Coating layer thickness and dissolution profiles are hard to control in this case.

Thus, starter beads of uniform size (distribution) and sphericity are the better solution for overcoming these issues by simplifying drug formulation and processing. Such starter beads can be pellets of MCC, sugar or tartaric acid. MCC pellets surely show perfect initial conditions as they exhibit chemical inertness and therefore can be combined with several APIs. In case of weakly basic APIs, tartaric acid pellets are advantageous.


Figure 4: A pellet inside a compressed MUPS tablet. The starter bead is surrounded by a coating layer of exemplarily excipient or API. A powdery excipients matrix surrounds the coated pellet. Friability is absolutely low.

Figure 4: A pellet inside a compressed MUPS tablet. The starter bead is surrounded by a coating layer of exemplarily excipient or API. A powdery excipients matrix surrounds the coated pellet. Friability is absolutely low.

Figure 4 shows a cross-section of a pellet in the matrix of a compressed MUPS tablet. It is mentionable, that due to low friability a high degree of sphericity as well as surface smoothness are kept after compression and film damage of coating layers is not identified.


Cellets® offer a perfect combination of chemical inertness towards the selection of the API and physical properties that allow optimized and stable processing in a fluid bed process for layering and coating of the starter beads. Main advantages are the low friability, smooth surface, sphericity and narrow size distributions.

Cellets® starter beads therefore provide excellent conditions for controlled drug dissolution profiles.


We acknowledge Fraunhofer IFAM (Dresden, Germany) for providing electron microscopic images.


Dr. Bastian Arlt


[1] Pöllinger N, Drug Product Development for Older Adults—Multiparticulate Formulations. In: Stegemann S. (eds) Developing Drug Products in an Aging Society. AAPS Advances in the Pharmaceutical Sciences Series, vol 26 (2016). Springer, Cham.

[2] Bhad ME, Abdul S, Jaiswal SB, Chandewar AV, Jain JM, Sakarkar DM. MUPS tablets—a brief review. Int J Pharm Tech Res. 2010;2:847–55