Home » Scientists find way to make painkillers from pine trees

Scientists find way to make painkillers from pine trees

by News Staff

Researchers from the University of Bath’s Department of Chemistry and Institute for Sustainability have made a significant breakthrough by discovering a method to produce two widely used painkillers, paracetamol and ibuprofen, using a compound found in pine trees. This compound, derived from turpentine, is a waste product of the paper industry, which produces over 350,000 tons of it annually.

Traditionally, the production of many pharmaceuticals involves chemical precursors derived from crude oil, which poses sustainability challenges as the world strives for Net Zero emissions. However, the team from Bath has successfully developed a technique to create a variety of pharmaceutical precursors using biorenewable β-pinene, sourced from turpentine.

Their groundbreaking research involved converting β-pinene into paracetamol and ibuprofen, which are manufactured in large quantities, approximately 100,000 tons per year. Moreover, they were able to synthesize other precursor chemicals from turpentine, including 4-HAP (4-hydroxyacetophenone), the precursor for drugs like beta-blockers and the asthma inhaler medication salbutamol. These chemical derivatives are widely used in perfumes and cleaning products as well.

The team envisions that this sustainable “biorefinery” approach could potentially replace the need for crude oil products in the chemical industry. Dr. Josh Tibbetts, a Research Associate in the University’s Department of Chemistry, emphasized the unsustainability of using oil to manufacture pharmaceuticals due to its contribution to rising CO2 emissions and its volatile price influenced by geopolitical factors. He believes that the cost of oil will only increase in the future, making alternative approaches more appealing.

This discovery marks a significant step towards developing greener and more environmentally friendly methods of pharmaceutical production, reducing the reliance on crude oil derivatives and contributing to a more sustainable future.

Biorenewable paracetamol produced by the team. Credit: University of Bath
Flow reactor used in the synthesis of paracetamol where starting materials are flowed through in a continuous process to give a constant stream of products. Credit: University of Bath

The researchers are advocating for a transition from oil extraction to a “bio-refinery” model in the future.

Their innovative biorefinery approach utilizes waste chemical by-products from the paper industry to generate a wide range of valuable and sustainable chemicals. These chemicals have diverse applications, ranging from perfumes to the production of paracetamol.

Unlike the traditional method of batch production using large reactors, the team’s process employs continuous flow reactors. This allows for uninterrupted production and facilitates easier scalability.

Although the current process may be more costly compared to using oil-based feedstocks, there is a possibility that consumers would be willing to pay a slightly higher price for pharmaceuticals that are derived entirely from plants and have enhanced sustainability credentials.

The research findings have been published in the scientific journal ChemSusChem.

Source: University of Bath

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