The Biobased and Renewable Products Advocacy Group (BRAG) helps members develop and bring to market their innovative biobased and renewable chemical products through insightful policy and regulatory advocacy. BRAG is managed by B&C® Consortia Management, L.L.C., an affiliate of Bergeson & Campbell, P.C.

By Lynn L. Bergeson

On July 24, 2018, a research team at the North Carolina State University announced that biobased glucaric-acid or lignin additives can increase the robustness of polyvinyl alcohol fibers, which can be used in biofriendly products including polymers, detergents, paints, and diapers.  The team plans to continue its R&D as a movement towards greener alternatives to support industries using additives with known varying levels of toxicity.  This discovery could play a large role in processing plastics for safe contact with food, people, and the environment.  In 2004, DOE listed glucaric-acid as one of the top 12 sugar-derived chemicals with the potential to be economic drivers for a biorefinery.  Lignin is low in cost and also a waste by-product of the pulp and paper industries, which can also make commercial scale production feasible.


 

By Lauren M. Graham, Ph.D.

Researchers at DOE’s Ames Laboratory are experimenting with chemical reactions that will provide an economical method of deconstructing lignin into stable, readily useful components.  Lignin is the second largest renewable carbon source on the planet, making it of interest to researchers focused on developing biofuels and bioproducts.  Currently, lignin is processed via pyrolysis or the use of an acid and high heat.  Both processes are inefficient and require high energy consumption.  Igor Slowing, an expert in heterogeneous catalysis, and his team are focused on developing a method of processing lignin at low temperature and pressure.  To achieve this goal, the team combined the decomposition and stabilization process into a single step using mild conditions and a multi-functional catalyst, specifically phosphate-modified ceria.  According to Slowing, the two processes appear to work synergistically at a lower temperature.  Following the promising results, the team aims to achieve lignin deconstruction using hydrogen from a renewable source.


 

On August 27, 2015, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced funding for two projects focused on the development of next-generation biofuels. Texas A&M University will receive up to $2.5 million to support its efforts in developing a single-unit process to convert lignin in the production of bioplastics, and Ohio University will receive up to $1.5 million for its work in developing a continuous flow electrochemical reactor that upgrades waste lignin to biobased phenol substitutes.


 

On June 11, 2015, the European Union (EU) provided UPM's ValChem project with €13.1 million to demonstrate the wood to chemicals value chain. ValChem is working to produce chemical building blocks and lignin from wood, resulting in a sustainable integrated process to produce economically viable biochemicals. UPM will work with Sekab, METabolic EXplorer, and Technische Universität Darmstadt on the ValChem project, which has a budget of €18.5 million. ValChem will use sustainably sourced wood in demonstration plants of the project partners to convert the wood to sugars, produce biobased mono propylene glycol from the sugars, and finally produce lignin based chemicals. This project is part of a joint undertaking between the Bio-based Industries Consortium (BIC) and the EU to increase investment in Europe's sustainable bio-based industry.


 

On August 20, 2014, DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) announced a new NREL study demonstrating a potentially more economical way to use lignin to make renewable fuels and products. NREL states in the study that "[o]verall, this work demonstrates that the use of aromatic catabolic pathways enables an approach to valorize lignin by overcoming its inherent heterogeneity to produce fuels, chemicals, and materials."


A copy of the announcement is available online. A copy of the full study is available online.
 


 

As lignin supplies rise on the back of growing cellulosic feedstock utilization, commercialization opportunities of up to $242 billion are emerging in 13 select chemicals, according to a July 10, 2014, news release from Lux Research. Lignin, a component of lignocellulosic biomass and a common byproduct stream from cellulosic conversion processes, has a potential market worth of $242 billion across 13 select products alone, but commercialization of these lignin-derived chemicals such as BTX (a mixture of benzene, toluene, and xylene), and cyclohexanol lags growing feedstock supplies.


Today, the commercial sale of lignin is limited. Even though the pulp and paper industry produces about 50 million metric tons (MT), most is burned for power with only one million MT reaching the chemicals market. The supply of lignin from other sources is set to grow, however. Growing production of fuels from lignocellulosic feedstocks alone is projected to process up to 2.9 million MT in 2017, creating huge opportunities for the creation of higher-value chemicals.


"Lignin is capable of producing a variety of straight chain, cyclic and aromatic chemicals, each with market sizes ranging from the tens of millions of dollars up to the hundred-billion-dollar range," stated Julia Allen, Lux Research Analyst and the lead author of the report titled, "Finding Untapped Value: Converting Lignin to Higher Value Chemicals."


"But creating higher-value chemicals requires technology development to balance feedstock variability, lignin separation effects, depolymerization, and product separation challenges, which still has significant work ahead," she added.


The news release is available online.