Doing more
with lignin

Lignin is a natural polymer that gives trees, grasses, and straws both their firmness and flexibility. Each year, nature produces 20 billion tons of lignin – four times as much as the five billion tons of oil extracted from the ground each year. As we transform into a sustainable chemical industry, lignin no longer seems to be considered a residue but an attractive raw material as alternative to fossil fuels. Whether the industry can use it on a large scale to produce sustainable materials and chemicals is now being explored in the European-funded *research project ‘Meer doen met lignine’ ('Doing more with lignin').

*co-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, the Ministry of Economic Affairs, and the Provinces of Limburg and Brabant in the context of the Operational Program South Netherlands (OPZuid)

The research consortium consists of universities and companies from the Netherlands and Flanders. The collaboration is being led by Michael Boot, CEO of Vertoro, the start-up resulting from InSciTe projects with Eindhoven University of Technology, Maastricht University, and DSM. 'The “Doing more with lignin” project brings together six partners in a supply chain from raw material to product,’ says Michael. ‘The Bio Treat Center and environmental waste management company Attero are responsible for the supply and processing of non-edible agricultural residual biomass such as spent mushroom compost, straw, or sawdust. The lignin-rich powder they supply is processed by Vertoro at Chemelot InSciTe's multi-purpose pilot plant on the Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Geleen. The product is a special crude lignin oil with high-quality properties that is easy to process in existing plants and processes. We have registered this oil under the trade name Goldy Locks®. The final links to the industry in our are the Flemish institute VITO and start-up Indresmat, which produce polyurethane coatings and building materials.’

Application of research by VITO

Together with TNO, VITO is the initiator of the shared research centre Biorizon on the Green Chemistry Campus in Bergen op Zoom. VITO's participation in ‘Doing more with lignin’ stems from an earlier collaboration with InSciTe and Vertoro in an Interreg Flanders-Netherlands stimulation programme (BIO-HArT). Kelly Servaes, bio-aromatics project manager at VITO, says ‘VITO is the coordinator for the lignin route at our shared research centre. Alongside converting lignin into bio-aromatics, we’re exploring how these bio-aromatics could be applied as chemicals and in materials. In the “Doing more with lignin” project, the crude lignin oil is converted into phenol, an important raw material in petrochemistry, or into polyurethane. Within this project we provide the input for our project partner Indresmat, which uses the crude lignin oil produced by Vertoro to manufacture building materials such as window and door frames.‘

Opportunities and challenges

‘Large chemical companies don't invest in these prototypes until they know they can purchase on a multi-ton scale,’ says Michael. ‘Eventually, the technology that scales up the fastest will become the better standard in the market. That's why we are committed to quickly demonstrating on a ton scale that you can make valuable products from agricultural waste. Reaching this milestone should encourage players on the market to sign a supply agreements, enabling us to raise funding for a commercial plant. My personal goal is for lignin to become the standard raw material for sustainable materials and chemical intermediates, and I could even imagine Goldy Locks® being on the ticker list among gold and oil. With this project, we're taking important steps in that direction.’

Connection in the South Limburg region

The project was made possible by OPZuid, the innovation programme of the provinces of Zeeland, Limburg, and Noord-Brabant, and it's also creating a strong link between these regions. ‘Connecting these communities will lead to new economic activity and growth in the whole southern region,’ says Kelly. ‘ Research on biomass conversion is being conducted on the Green Chemistry Campus in Bergen op Zoom, the Bio Treat Center on the Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo, and at InSciTe's pilot plant on the Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Geleen. With this new project, we are strengthening the links between these campuses and we do our research towards a joint business case: from waste streams to valuable chemical intermediates and performance materials.’

Michael Boot

Michael Boot received his MSc. and PhD from Eindhoven University of Technology in 2005 and 2010, respectively. Originally schooled as a mechanical engineering, Michael went on to obtain an MBA from TIAS Business School in 2016. For the better part of the past decade, Michael has followed two distinct, though highly synergetic carrier paths in the biobased domain. One as a scientist in various guises at Eindhoven University of Technology and one as an entrepreneur through multiple high-tech startups, most recently as co-founder and CEO at Vertoro.

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Kelly Servaes

Kelly Servaes works as a Project manager BioAromatics at VITO. She obtained her Master in Science – Chemistry in 2002 and her PhD in 2007 at the University of Leuven (Belgium). Since 2007 she has been working at VITO, being responsible for the development and application of analytical strategies and techniques for tracking of organic pollutants in water, soil and food. In 2013, she joined the bio-aromatic strategic platform (initially: development of membrane separation processes for purification and fractionation of lignin-based streams issued from the pretreatment and lignin depolymerization processes). She has insights into (chemo)catalytic processing for the depolymerization of lignin and the direct conversion of wood, including the analysis of the characteristics of the resulting lignin oils and fractions. She is coordinator of several projects at the national and EU level, among others the ERDF project LignoValue Pilot, aiming at the design and construction of a pilot plant for the depolymerization of lignin (wood) into bio-aromatics.

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