Paracetamol and ibuprofen painkillers produced using paper waste by-product

Study finds that over-the-counter medicines like paracetamol and ibuprofen can be made from a chemical found in pine trees, instead of crude oil.
Shubhangi Dua
Representative image of common painkillers
Representative image of common painkillers

bieshutterb / iStock 

Over-the-counter medicines like paracetamol and ibubrofen are produced in such large quantities - roughly 100,000 tonnes annually - that manufacturing them using chemical precursors derived from crude oil presents something of a sustainability challenge.

As such, the pharmaceutical industry generally has quite a significant carbon footprint.

However, a team of researchers at University of Bath’s Department of Chemistry and Institute for Sustainablity has successfully synthesized analgesics using a compound emanated from pine trees which originated as a waste product from the paper industry.

Turpentine component

The researchers have created a range of pharmaceutical precursors from bio-renewable β-pinene, a turpentine component that is a waste by-product from the paper industry (annual production >350,000 tonnes). These have been successfully converted to produce two everyday painkillers – paracetamol and ibuprofen.

The researchers said that they also successfully synthesized a range of other precursor chemicals from turpentine, including 4-HAP (4-hydroxyacetophenone), which is the precursor of drugs including beta-blockers and the asthma inhaler drug, salbutamol, as well as others widely used for perfumes and in cleaning products.

The method allows scientists to undertake uninterrupted production and tackle scalability.

The research proposes a more sustainable and plant-derived way to forgo traditional production methods. 

Research associate in the University’s Department of Chemistry, Dr Josh Tibbetts said: “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.”

“Instead of extracting more oil from the ground, we want to replace this in the future with a ‘bio-refinery’ model.

Bi-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.”

By applying the new method – the turpentine-based biorefinery model, consumers will benefit from using completely plant-derived sustainable pharmaceuticals and reduce their carbon footprint.

Another study exploring the environmental impact of manufacturing common painkillers discovered that bioremediation holds potential for removing pollutants created during the crude oil manufacturing process from the environment.

Biomediation uses bacteria with enhanced degradation abilities to eliminate the pollutants from nature that wastewater treatment plants cannot remove. However, more research is needed to understand the toxicity, degradation mechanisms, and genetic aspects of these drugs.

In contrast, the new model bypasses the method of eliminating toxic residue in the environment as it uses renewables to manufacture a mass produced drug.

It is currently more expensive than the standard production method which manufactures painkillers using oil-based feedstocks. 

The study was published on 18 June in the journal ChemSusChem.


Scalable processes have been developed to convert β-pinene into 4-isopropenylcyclohexanone which is then used as a feedstock for the divergent synthesis of sustainable versions of the common painkillers, paracetamol and ibuprofen. Both synthetic routes use Pd(0) catalysed reactions to aromatise the cyclohexenyl rings of key intermediates to produce the benzenoid ring systems of both drugs. The potential of using bioderived 4-hydroxyacetophenone as a drop-in feedstock replacement to produce sustainable aromatic products is also discussed within a terpene biorefinery context.

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