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Biorefining lignin to generate high-value products, partners have set up a company to explore the feasibility of industrialization

Biorefining lignin to generate high-value products, partners have set up a company to explore the feasibility of industrialization

Replacing petroleum products at the source, this is the research of Luo Yuqi (qíng), a Hubei boy. In a related paper, the co-first author, who wrote with him, has set up a related company for incubation.

As a whole, this work demonstrates the possibility of generating high-value products from different biorefineries of lignin. In the study, he and colleagues propose a new process for producing polymer precursors from renewable resources and demonstrate the good economics of the method for high-value resin materials.

Biorefining lignin to generate high-value products, partners have set up a company to explore the feasibility of industrialization

Yuqi Luo is a native of Wuhan, Hubei Province, and is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Delaware. Recently, his co-authorship paper, entitled "Ambient-pressure lignin valorization to high-performance polymers by intensified reductive catalytic deconstruction catalytic deconstruction) was published inScience Advances[1].

Biorefining lignin to generate high-value products, partners have set up a company to explore the feasibility of industrialization

His advisor, Professor Marianthi Ierapetritou, is a co-author and Thomas H. Epps III, Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Delaware, is a corresponding author.

Improving traditional lignin reduction catalytic fractionation

Biorefining lignin to generate high-value products, partners have set up a company to explore the feasibility of industrialization

Currently, energy and chemicals still rely heavily on petroleum feedstocks for their generation, which inevitably results in significant carbon emissions. In recent years, people are more and more concerned about environmental issues, and many countries have set carbon peaking carbon neutral emission reduction targets. The use of biomass instead of petroleum feedstock is considered to be a very promising solution. A large number of companies and research institutions have invested a lot in related experiments and have proposed several synthetic pathways that have worked in the laboratory.

However, most companies are still bound by economics in their operations and decisions. For a technology to be accepted by the public and adopted by companies, it needs not only to have the effect of reducing CO2 emissions, but also to be able to ensure that the cost of production is competitive with current conventional petrochemicals. For example, the process of fermenting biomass to make ethanol fuel has been developed over the years in several iterations and can be produced on a large scale, but the high cost of production still limits its application.

Lignin is widely distributed in various biomass feedstocks, especially in non-food biomass materials such as wood, bark and algae. While this study is an improvement of the traditional lignin reduction catalytic fractionation technique, the main innovation comes from the experimental part of the collaborators.

Currently, much research has been able to efficiently convert most other components of biomass, into sugars, and other valuable intermediates. However, the effective use of lignin is still a challenge.

For example, the paper manufacturing process generates large amounts of waste lignin, most of which is burned to provide heat for the overall process due to lack of efficient utilization. Inevitably, this process produces large amounts of carbon dioxide, which contributes to the warming effects.

In this work, the group chose glycerol, which has a higher boiling point, as the solvent and is involved in the lignin reduction catalytic fractionation reaction. In contrast, most conventional methods use methanol as the solvent, as well as excess hydrogen. Due to the long reaction time, the traditional high-pressure intermittent process would be more difficult to scale up to industrial production and also more difficult to operate.

Biorefining lignin to generate high-value products, partners have set up a company to explore the feasibility of industrialization

And the use of glycerol reacting at atmospheric pressure with simultaneous reaction distillation facilitates continuous production and also effectively enhances energy utilization.

Yuqi Luo said, "Our experimental collaborators, named this new lignin conversion technology as reactive distillation-reductive catalytic depolymerization. In addition, the application of obtaining lignin-derived phenols for functionalization and use in the manufacture of 3D printing resins and pressure-sensitive adhesives continues to be explored." And in addition to the resin materials mentioned in the paper for 3D printing or pressure-sensitive adhesives, lignin-derived phenols can also be used to make perfumes or other fragrance additives.

Replacement of petroleum products from the source, common one work has set up related companies and received state government funding support

Biorefining lignin to generate high-value products, partners have set up a company to explore the feasibility of industrialization

In the paper, Luo Yiqi mainly from the new experimental conditions and results, the design and simulation of chemical processes, and do to economic and technical analysis. The main purpose is to compare the improved process with the traditional method in terms of economics, in order to reveal the economic factors that limit the development of the current technology, such as too expensive raw materials and low concentration of the reaction solution, in the early stage of laboratory research, thus further contributing to the improvement of this technology.

Biorefining lignin to generate high-value products, partners have set up a company to explore the feasibility of industrialization

According to the report, the project is a research project of the National Science Foundation Growing Convergence Research Fund at the University of Delaware. The research collaborator, Professor Thomas H. Epps III, has been exploring this field for many years, and his group has done a lot of preliminary work. After determining the feasibility of the experimental part and conducting detailed experiments on the synthesis pathway, they contacted Luo's group to collaborate on a comparison of their lignin conversion technique with the traditional method for further improvements.

The paper's co-first author, Dr. Robert M. O'Dea, is continuing to develop and commercialize this technology. He and his advisor, Thomas H. Epps III, currently have a company called Lignolix, Inc. based on this series of technologies, which is currently funded by the State of Delaware, in 2019.

According to the paper, the main focus of this dissertation was on the economic-technical analysis, which looked at the cost aspects of the technology. They followed up with a life cycle assessment of the technology to analyze the environmental impact of using biomass instead of crude oil to generate chemicals.

Biorefining lignin to generate high-value products, partners have set up a company to explore the feasibility of industrialization

In recent years, research in this area has become increasingly publicized due to the ongoing global climate concerns and the establishment of low carbon emission reduction targets in various countries. The starting point for using biomass feedstocks to produce compounds is the desire to replace petroleum products at the source, thereby reducing carbon emissions. However, if other petrochemicals or excess energy are used in the actual production, there is instead the potential for more greenhouse gas emissions.

At the same time, considering the complexity and diversity of sources of biomass feedstock, Luo and colleagues have designed a more integrated process to convert the trimmings from wood treatment, such as bark, branches, leaves, etc., so that other components of biomass, such as cellulose, can be used more effectively to produce chemicals. He said this part of the work has been compiled into a paper that has gone through the first round of revisions and is in the second round of peer review.

Biorefining lignin to generate high-value products, partners have set up a company to explore the feasibility of industrialization

finished his undergraduate course in the summer of his junior year and went abroad to join Penn for an internship

Biorefining lignin to generate high-value products, partners have set up a company to explore the feasibility of industrialization

According to the introduction, Luo Yuqi graduated from Shanghai Jiaotong University's School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering as an undergraduate and initially chose the polymer department mainly because he found it interesting. For him, polymer materials are widely used in life, and the basic theory of polymer science can explain and solve many common problems. As he enjoyed himself, his grades remained stable at the top for four years of college and he was awarded the title of Shanghai Outstanding Graduate upon graduation.

In his junior year, having completed all his courses, he contacted Professor Virgil Percec, an expert in polymerization in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, for a research internship in the latter's lab.

The polymerization track was something he'd always wanted to be involved in, despite its difficulties: for example, experiments on the kinetics of reactive radical polymerization reactions require strict oxygen isolation and manual sampling every 5 to 10 minutes, followed by a series of analyses.

He says, "It was a lot of work for a few months, but it was really rewarding. But it was really rewarding, and it also sharpened the mind, and eventually the paper on that part of the work was published after the undergraduate degree."

Later, when it came time to apply to PhD programs in the U.S., he decided to switch from undergraduate chemistry to chemical engineering. More and more research is now focused on energy-saving and emission reduction technologies. But how to clearly present technological innovations to the academic community and the public continues to plague researchers.

He says, "For most scientific groups, they rarely think about how to quantitatively describe environmental factors such as greenhouse gas emissions in chemical production. It also made me very new to the relevant economic and environmental analyses."

"It made me think about when I first started using LCA methods and was exposed to many ideas that changed my original perceptions. For example, the debate over whether paper bags are better or worse than plastic bags, or whether the current heavy use of food crops to make ethanol fuel really reduces carbon emissions? And will it lead to a broader hunger problem? This has led me to slowly realize that many energy-saving and emission-reducing technologies have good intentions, but may lead to new problems that are not so obvious, and that LCA can lead to more systematic and comprehensive thinking about these issues to avoid inadvertent mistakes." Luo Yuzhang concluded.

-End-

References:

1. O'Dea, R. M., Pranda, P. A., Luo, Y., Amitrano, A., Ebikade, E. O., Gottlieb, E. R., ... & Epps III, T. H. (2022). Ambient-pressure lignin valorization to high-performance polymers by intensified reductive catalytic deconstruction.Science advances, 8(3), eabj7523.

Biorefining lignin to generate high-value products, partners have set up a company to explore the feasibility of industrialization