London: Common drugs such as paracetamol and ibuprofen can now be made from a compound found in pine trees, which is also a waste product from the paper industry, instead of crude oil products, according to a study. Common pharmaceuticals are manufactured using chemical precursors derived from crude oil, presenting a niche sustainability challenge as the world targets Net Zero.
A team from the University of Bath’s Department of Chemistry and Institute for Sustainability developed a method of creating a range of pharmaceutical precursors from biorenewable beta-pinene, a component of turpentine which is a waste by-product from the paper industry with an annual production of more than 350,000 tonnes. They successfully converted beta-pinene into two everyday painkillers, paracetamol and ibuprofen, which are produced on approximately 100,000 tonne scales annually.
The more sustainable “biorefinery” approach, published in the journal ChemSusChem, can help replace the need for crude oil products in the chemical industry. “Using oil to make pharmaceuticals is unsustainable — not only is it contributing to rising carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, but the price fluctuates dramatically as we are greatly dependent on the geopolitical stability of countries with large oil-reserves, and it is only going to get more expensive,” said Dr Josh Tibbetts, Research Associate in the University’s Department of Chemistry. “Instead of extracting more oil from the ground, we want to replace this in the future with a ‘bio-refinery’ model,” he added.
The team also successfully synthesised a range of other precursor chemicals from turpentine, including 4-HAP (4-hydroxyacetophenone), which is the precursor of drugs including beta-blockers and asthma inhaler drug, salbutamol, as well as others widely used for perfumes and in cleaning products. “Our turpentine-based biorefinery model uses waste chemical by-products from the paper industry to produce a spectrum of valuable, sustainable chemicals that can be used in a wide range of applications from perfumes to paracetamol,” Tibbetts said.
Instead of putting chemicals in a large reactor to create separate batches of product, the method uses continuous flow reactors, meaning production can be uninterrupted and easier to scale up. Whilst the process in its current form may be more expensive than using oil-based feedstocks, consumers may be prepared to pay a slightly higher price for more sustainable pharmaceuticals that are completely plant-derived, the team said.