Without aromatic compounds, there would be no chemicals industry. The trouble is, these aromatic compounds can only be obtained from crude oil. The major challenge is that we want to become less dependent when it comes to our raw materials, and we prefer to use greener raw materials and those that offer functionality without further processing. It is time to seek alternatives.

High potential raw material 

Lignin can replace crude oil-based aromatic compounds in a number of applications. It is an extremely promising substance: though it is complex, this is precisely why its potential as a raw material is underestimated. VITO hopes to make this bio-based raw material more accessible to industry by working with both national and international partners in a range of projects. It has this aim in common with Biorizon, a shared research centre whose ambition is to raise the profile of bio-aromatics and to support commercial production using an industry-inspired roadmap.
At present, the European chemicals industry annually consumes 47 million metric tonnes of carbon derived from fossil fuels. At the same time, European forests hold a biomass-based carbon potential that is over 2,000 times greater. It therefore seems obvious that bio-aromatics, such as lignin, offer huge potential. Lignin is the most commonly occurring organic material on Earth after cellulose/hemicellulose. According to estimates, between 60 and 70 million metric tonnes of lignin are available from wood pulp and the paper industry. Around 95% of that is currently being burned.

Possible applications

Lignin offers a wide range of possible applications: it can be used as a filler or a renewable raw material for the production of bio-fuels, but also as a bio-aromatic for the production of all kinds of chemicals and materials (including resins and polymer blends). It is precisely this range of applications that VITO is mapping out in the LignoCost network, a collaboration with a large group of academic partners and companies. The challenge currently faced by the European chemical industry is, in fact, innovation when it comes to chemicals and materials with high added value. It is, after all, losing market share due to strong growth in developing countries and loss of competitiveness. However, it is possible to turn the tide by bringing new, innovative and sustainable products and processes to the market, by replacing toxic, crude oil-based products, and by offering bio-based, high-performance, and safe alternatives.

Lignin is not yet a commodity product that is being used as a building block, primarily because the means of producing a defined bio-aromatics soup from lignin are very diverse, the TRL is too low, and the technology is quite complex. As part of the Catalisti project ‘BioAromatics Feedstock and Technology (BAFTA)’, VITO and KU Leuven performed a detailed landscape analysis of the technologies available globally for the direct conversion of wood and the depolymerisation of lignin into bio-based aromatics. VITO has a road map produced by Biorizon, concentrating on 3 research lines through co-financed projects with close industrial involvement, namely depolymerisation with the construction of a pilot plant (EFRO Ligno-Value Pilot), fractionation (BBI SmartLi, BBI LigniOx, Interreg Biohart) and biopolymer synthesis and application work (O&O Cambium, BBI Selectively, among others).