Painkiller producers could pivot to paper waste instead of crude oil
Paracetamol and ibuprofen are among the world’s most common over-the-counter painkillers, but manufacturing them requires crude oil. Now, researchers at the University of Bath have developed a more sustainable method, creating the drugs out of waste products from the paper industry.
When we feel a headache coming on, many of us will just pop a pill without really thinking about where it came from. But many common pharmaceuticals, such as paracetamol/acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol and Panadol) and ibuprofen (also known as Advil or Nurofen), are made using chemicals derived from crude oil. And in the quest to cut our reliance on fossil fuels, these essential medications, of which around 100,000 tonnes are produced every year, could be an overlooked complication.
In the new study, the Bath researchers developed a new method to make precursor materials for these drugs from renewable sources. The team started with a chemical called beta-pinene, which is a component of turpentine. That might not sound much better than crude oil, but it’s derived from pine trees, as a waste product of paper manufacturing.
From this, the researchers used continuous flow reactors to produce paracetamol and ibuprofen, as well as precursors to other pharmaceuticals. That includes one called 4-HAP, which is used to make beta blockers and asthma medication, along with perfumes and cleaning products.
The Bath team says this work could not only make these basic medications more environmentally friendly, but the continuous flow reactors should make the technique easier to scale up.
“Using oil to make pharmaceuticals is unsustainable – not only is it contributing to rising 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, first author of the study. “Instead of extracting more oil from the ground, we want to replace this in the future with a ‘bio-refinery’ model. 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.”
The research was published in the journal ChemSusChem.
Source: University of Bath