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Cold and cough medicines that won't harm the environment

Victoria University (VU) researchers have patented a new environmentally friendly way to make ephedrine.

Used in the manufacture of many of the world's cold, cough, asthma, and hay fever medicines, ephedrine is a pharmaceutical with the fourth largest global production after paracetamol, ibuprofen and amoxicillin.

But while the global industry is worth billions of dollars traditional manufacturing is energy intensive and polluting.

Associate Professors Andrew Smallridge and Maurie Trewhella from VU have spent 12 years developing the new process, which they say is clean, green, and promises to be cheaper.

In the conventional process, ephedrine is made by a yeast fermentation that uses large volumes of water followed by substantial quantities of organic solvents, which are highly toxic and expensive. The fermentation reaction needs to be kept at a constant temperature and continually stirred, both operations requiring vast amounts of energy.

Trewhella says: "Instead, our process is a continuous system that replaces water with smaller amounts of high pressure (supercritical) carbon dioxide and recycles all of the chemicals it uses, which means there is minimal waste."

"Each year ephedrine factories produce thousands of kilos of product. Converting to a less energy intensive process that uses less power would mean fewer emissions and help the industry meet its obligations in terms of climate change."

Smallridge says: "Another significant environmental benefit is that the new process swaps organic solvents for naturally occurring supercritical carbon dioxide (SC-CO2), which is completely non-toxic."

Conducting chemical reactions in SC-CO2 also results in an important chemical benefit - the suppression of side reactions that lead to unwanted impurities.

To address manufacturer's financial concerns, the new process uses common baker's yeast as the core ingredient in the reaction, which the researchers say ensures their method is sustainable and cheap. 

Most of the world's ephedrine is manufactured in India, China, and Germany. Although it occurs naturally in the plant ephedra, it is difficult to grow in large quantities, and analysts predict synthetic ephedrine will dominate the industry in less than a decade.

The researchers say the next stage for their project is to begin working with commercial partners to produce commercial quantities of the product.

Victoria University has protected the process internationally with four suites of patents.

Media Contacts:

Ms Christine White, Media Manager,
Marketing & Communications Department, Victoria University
Ph: (03) 9919 4322; mobile: 0434 602 884

Andy Gash, Snr. Media Officer
Marketing and Communications Department, Victoria University
Ph: (03) 9919 4950; mobile: 0411 255 900

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