Broadening the applications of
lignin oil

There is a huge need for plastics from renewable rather than fossil raw materials, and bioplastics are in the top ten of promising substitutes. That’s why the LOADED (Lignin Oil Based Performance Additives) project, launched at the end of 2019, is focusing on bioplastics and building on the knowledge from three previous Chemelot InSciTe projects.

Katrien Bernaerts is Associate Professor of Polymer Chemistry in the Biobased Materials Group at Maastricht University. Panos Kouris is a PhD candidate at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), CTO of Vertoro, and connected to several lignin-related projects at InSciTe. Katrien explains what the LOADED project is about. ‘In short, our project uses lignin oil as an additive to improve the properties of different classes of polymers and biopolymers, such as polyamides, polyesters, and polyolefins. As an additive from renewable biobased materials such as wood and waste streams from the pulp and paper industry, lignin oil has some very promising properties: it blocks UV, and it’s antioxidant, antimicrobial, biodegradable, and flame retardant. By adding all of these properties of lignin to the polymers in the way we’re doing, we’re able to create improved materials that can be used in many applications, including polyesters for PET bottles, polyamides in fibres, and nylons and polyolefins in various packaging materials. It also means we’re using an additive from natural rather than synthetic sources.’

Building on knowledge

The great thing is that much of the knowledge has already been developed in earlier projects at InSciTe: Lignin RICHES, LIBERATE and HiperBioPol. ‘Lignin RICHES developed a process to convert lignin from the wood processing industry into crude lignin oil,’ explains Panos. ‘This project was completed at the end of 2019. At LIBERATE, we’re also looking at producing raw lignin oil from alternative sources that are more widely available, such as wood. LOADED is going to use fractions of the lignin oil from these projects. The HiperBioPol project is working on a technology to process polyamides and mixtures of polyamides with functional fillers by using water. As part of LOADED, we also want to use this “water route” to mix fractions of the lignin oil with polyamides. As we’re able to build on knowledge, we can develop valuable applications faster. And because we’re working with the same team, we can make progress even more quickly.’

Combining expertise

As is usual in InSciTe projects, several partners are working together in the project, including TU/e and Maastricht University. Private partners are also joining, such as Vertoro, the start-up that originated from the Lignin RICHES project. Each party is contributing their own expertise. ‘Vertoro and the TU/e have demonstrated in the laboratory that the crude lignin oil can easily be converted into a thermoplastic material, while retaining the important lignin properties,’ says Panos. ‘Once we have samples ready in the project, Vertoro will work with other companies to test them. We can then use the feedback from companies to further improve the product.’ Katrien continues: ‘Maastricht University has experience in modifying lignin to ensure it has good compatibility with other polymers. We also take care of the processing, making the blends of lignin oil with the other polymers. These are the polymer samples that are being tested by companies involved in our project.’

Industries benefit from ready-to-use process

Thanks to Chemelot InSciTe, the project has access to a unique pilot plant for the scale up of the production of crude lignin oil, with the ultimate goal of offering both a product and a ready-to-use, validated manufacturing process to interested companies. ‘The great thing is that we do our project in the Brightlands ecosystem, and InSciTe has managed to get some large companies on board, such as DSM, with a great deal of expertise in polymers. The way InSciTe is actively connecting academic and business communities is very powerful. If you can get one business on board, you have a much better chance of the same happening in other applications. That will help us get this application to the market faster.’

Panos Kouris

Panos Kouris holds a BSc. and a MEng in Chemical Engineering, from the Department of Chemical Engineering of the University of Patras in Greece. In 2015, he obtained his MSc. in Process Engineering from the Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry of Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), where he investigated a new process for the recovery of useful components from biomass waste streams. Currently, he is a Phd candidate (TU/e) and workpackage leader (at InSciTe) under the supervision of Professor Emiel Hensen and Dr. Michael Boot, where he investigates the development of a new generation of liquid biofuels from lignin and the construction of the world’s first multifunctional pilot plant for lignocellulosic biomass conversion.

Panos owns, together with Michael Boot, the start-up company Vertoro. The goal of Vertoro is to scale up the production of a new globally tradeable commodity, crude lignin oil (CLO). As the Chief Technology Officer, Panos is responsible for all the technology decisions in the company.

Panos was selected as Young European Talent (2018) in the field of Science.

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Katrien Bernaerts

Katrien Bernaerts, graduated as a licentiate (master) in chemistry from Ghent University (Belgium) in 2000. After obtaining her PhD in polymer chemistry, Katrien spent 7 years in industry, doing research in the field of coatings and fibers. Since 2012, she started as assistant professor polymer chemistry at Maastricht University. Her main research interest is the synthesis of renewable, functional (co)polymers with a variety of architectures via different chemistries and the study of their structure-property relationships in several fields of application e.g. stimuli-responsive polymers, organic coatings, fibers, organic membranes, engineering plastics and biomedical applications.

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