There’s an old saying, that you can make anything from lignin, except money. Lignin, a significant component of plant-based biomass, has historically been difficult to transform into high value products. A new grant from the National Science Foundation Partnership for Innovation (NSF-PFI) program aims to change that.
The three-year, $550,000 project, is led by Bala Subramaniam, Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Kansas and Director for the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis. Working with researchers from agribusiness Archer Daniels Midland, Subramaniam’s team plans to test the commercial viability of a new approach to processing lignin.
While some parts of biomass are relatively easy to transform into useful building-block molecules, lignin is stubbornly stable, and is often just burned as a low-value heat source. This project will test the viability of CEBC’s innovative new approach to processing lignin.
The first step in this new sequential approach uses a novel ozonolysis spray reactor to cleanly “pluck-off” a small, but valuable, portion of the lignin. One of the main products of this step is vanillin, the same chemical that gives vanilla extract its distinctive aroma. This concept was demonstrated in a showcase article in a recent edition of Reaction Chemistry & Engineering.
Researchers will then break apart the remaining portion of the lignin using new catalysts. Like crafty scrapbook makers, catalysts help cut and glue molecular bonds, rearranging the atoms into useful building blocks for commercial products like adhesives, foam insulation, and composite wood materials.
After conducting lab-scale tests on the proposed technology, the team will use that information to develop a detailed economic and market assessment about its commercial potential.