While the European chemical industry may be growing, it is losing global market share. This is due to strong growth in emerging countries and a loss of competitiveness. To reverse this trend, the sector wants to bring new, innovative products and processes to the market. The choice of alternative raw materials and greater raw material flexibility can give European chemistry a second wind. In this context, VITO is developing a pilot factory to test technologies that convert wood and lignin into usable aromatics.

40 percent of the chemicals in Europe are aromatic. Aromatics are present in petroleum, but also in lignin, a substance that occurs naturally in most types of biomass. “The chemical industry in Europe uses 47 million tonnes of carbon from fossil fuels each year. The biomass potential of European forests is about 100,000 million tonnes of carbon per year. This offers opportunities,” says VITO researcher Kelly Servaes. “Moreover, the production process from biomass to aromatics has room for improvement. Currently, biomass flows are completely broken down into syngas (synthesis gas composed of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, ed.). With this, for example, methanol is made. In nature, we often see that compound molecules already have interesting functionalities. It is more efficient to break down biomass into chemically usable building blocks and to use these directly. We can extract essential oils from algae for the cosmetic industry. And we extract lignin from wood.”

Larger test quantities needed

Biomass with lignocellulose, such as wood, straw and grass, emerged from various studies as the best choice for the production of bioaromatics. Much progress has been made in this area in recent years. In the context of regional and European projects, VITO is studying various processes that convert wood and lignin into a complex mixture of bioaromatics. This mixture is further purified to usable aromatic fractions of monomers, dimers and oligomers. Finished products include for example phenolic resins, epoxy resins and high-grade antioxidants for the cosmetic or pharmaceutical sector. “The applicability of most technologies has already been demonstrated in the lab. But the amounts of bioaromatics generated in this way – from a few grams to a few kilos – are expensive and often too small for thorough application testing. As a result, companies are losing interest and development is lagging. When we make a bioar.omatic, we have to know if it is usable. Which is why VITO, together with the Flemish Environmental Holding (VMH), is developing a demo production line of a usable size to produce bioaromatics from wood or lignin,” says Kelly Servaes.

The first step is to set up a pilot factory so that we can demonstrate existing conversion technologies on a relevant scale. We also offer companies the opportunity to take further steps in their own development process, and illustrate the technical-economic feasibility of a demo factory. In this project, VITO is acting as an enabler that can close the gap between universities and industry.

Extra investments

For development of the pilot factory, a project was submitted to the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the Flemish Department of Economy, Science and Innovation, and the Province of Antwerp. VITO itself will invest around two million euros. “The design and construction of the pilot factory is occurring in collaboration with Jacobs Belgie NV. The project is also actively supported by Catalisti, the Flemish spearhead cluster for chemistry and plastics,” says Kelly Servaes.

Several companies have already expressed interest in the pilot factory by signing a letter of intent. New industrial parties that want to follow the project up close are still welcome.

In order to successfully demonstrate the lignin-to-aromatics value chain, a depolymerisation reactor alone is insufficient. In the longer term, additional investments are needed in equipment for the pretreatment of biomass (wood/lignin) and purification/fractionation of ligninbased bioaromatics. Which is why VITO is already seeking additional financing through national, interregional and European investment channels.

The project is part of the BIORIZON collaboration, in which VITO, the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) and the Energy Research Center of the Netherlands (ECN) are looking at how they can convert lignin and sugars into bioaromatics.

VITO and AEP have been partners in the SmartLi project (Smart Technologies for the Conversion of Industrial Lignins into Sustainable Materials) since 2015. VITO is focusing on membrane technologies for the pre-treatment of lignin-rich flows. AEP is assessing whether the quality of lignin can affect important properties of epoxy and polyurethane formulas, such as adhesion or flammability. For AEP, lignin certainly has potential as a sustainable raw material.

Andrea Minigher
Director of Business Development, AEP Polymers