Lignin, new opportunities

As researchers have discovered commercial pathways to separate cellulose and hemicellulose on a commercial scale, lignin treatment is the next step. And quite more complex. Utrecht University seems well underway to tackle this problem.

Chemistry is on its way to discover many pathways for separation of vegetal fibres into green chemical building blocks. Recently, DSM succeeded in separating on a commercial scale both cellulose and hemicellulose into C6 and C5 sugars. They will invest in factories for biofuel production in the US, where the market is huge. The ability to process both celluloses gives them a lead on competitors which can only handle cellulose. The next step, an even higher hurdle, is processing lignin in vegetal fibres. Whoever surmounts this problem, wins a major prize. It does not come as a surprise that many groups around the world tackle this problem. Among them, a group at Utrecht University, which specializes in fundamental catalytic research.

Difficult feedstock
Utrecht University’s Pieter Bruijnincx announced at last week’s Biobased Performance Materials Symposium in Wageningen, that catalytic processing of difficult feedstock like lignin, to produce aromatic products like phenols, is among their priorities. This might open up a completely new category of green chemicals for further processing. Lignin, says Pieter, could replace sugars, which now attract attention worldwide, as a feedstock for green chemistry. His group processes lignin in two steps, producing phenol or BTX (benzene, toluene, xylene): depolymerisation, followed by deoxygenation of the resulting aromatic broth. Both reactions could produce aromatics with a 17% efficiency.

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