A unique collaborative effort is getting under way between Scion in New Zealand and VITO in Belgium to accelerate the development of functional bio-aromatic chemicals from lignin. This is part of a joint strategy by both organisations to accelerate innovation through adaption and co-invention of technology and by assembling world-leading teams. The overall goal is to go beyond chemicals and materials and see the development through to new bioproducts.
Biomass to aromatics
Aromatic compounds are important raw materials for specialty chemicals, polymers and resins. Currently, virtually all aromatics are made from fossil oil. Hence, a renewable alternative is needed. Both organisations see huge potential in utilising the interesting structure and functionality of distinctive lignin fractions in novel polymers and the subsequent product development for high value applications. VITO and Scion will work closely together to commercialise new technology and products.
“This is where lignin comes to the fore,” says Dr Kirk Torr, Project Leader for the Scion side of the international collaboration. “Lignin is the complex polymer that provides strength and structure in trees. A by-product of lignocellulose bio-refineries, it is abundant and cheap. And it is a natural source of highly functionalised aromatic units.”
“Lignin as a raw material presents three separate challenges,” explains Kirk. The first is to split the strong lignin structure in the right places to retain the chemically interesting building blocks. The second is to separate the different components from the lignin ‘soup’. The final challenge is the incorporation of the new bioaromatic molecules into different polymer systems and turning them into products.
Dr Florian Graichen, Science Leader for Biopolymers and Chemicals at Scion, who formerly worked for VITO, says that bringing Scion and VITO together will use the complementary strengths of both organisations. “VITO has expertise in fractionation and separation technology, using ceramic or polymer membranes. Scion brings experience in chemistry of bio-materials and in creating new bio-products”.
Creating new, commercially viable products, not mere “copies” from the classic ones
Dr Marjorie Dubreuil, Project Leader Bioaromatics at VITO, says “We are targeting materials and products that go beyond clean, green and renewable. By building on the natural features of lignin, features designed by nature, such as 3-dimensional structure, chirality and existing heteroatoms, we want to design products that aren’t possible to manufacture from petrochemical resources; products that offer performance attributes beyond sustainability.”
The first step in the collaboration is appointing a postdoctoral fellow who will work with Marjorie and Kirk. “Recruitment is underway,” says Kirk. “This is an amazing opportunity for a talented chemist to work with world class researchers, spending time at both Scion in New Zealand and VITO in Belgium.”
Looking towards the future, Florian says, “We need to be able to demonstrate that making bioaromatics from materials such as lignin is both possible and commercially viable. Even more importantly, we have to show we can use the bioaromatics to make bioproducts that people can see, feel, touch and desire. This is what will drive the development of bio-industries and a green and sustainable future. Scion and VITO hope to build on the success of this joint postdoc and broaden their collaboration also into other areas.”
Scion is a New Zealand Crown research institute specialises in research, science and technology development for the forestry industry, wood products and wood-derived materials. We lead new technology development for renewables, bioproducts and energy and the establishment of a broader based bio-economy.