Lignin – the new petroleum?

Picture of author Lokesh Kesavan

Lokesh Kesavan
TCSM Postdoctoral researcher
Materials Chemistry and Chemical Analysis

The world has been heavily dependent on fossil geo-resources for its scientific exploration and material progress, so far. Due to fast depletion, non-renewability, and increased carbon foot prints of fossil geo-resources, there is a need for technological maneuvers to combat the scarcity of resources, pollution, and unsustainability. This is also one of the key themes in sustainable development goals. Researchers around the world have started looking at new possible resources in nature, and have identified bio-resources, especially forests, as the next treasure houses. Though forest products research has been in practice since long ago, it has not gained momentum with petroleum reservoirs still providing raw materials easily and cost effectively.  However, after the advent of new buzzwords like ‘climate change’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘circular economy’, the focus on bio resources and utilizing them in an eco-friendly way has grown multifold in recent years.

Wood is one of the largest components of bio-resources, which fulfills the need of forests products industry supply chain. Wood constitutes largely of cellulose followed by lignin and hemicellulose.  In hardwood stem, the xylem usually contains 40–55% of cellulose, 24–40% of hemicellulose and 18–25% of lignin, while the soft wood stem contains 45–50% of cellulose, 25–35% of hemicellulose and 25–35% of lignin. Applications for cellulose and hemicellulose have been found in many areas already because of their ease of modification and functionalization, whereas lignin has always been a challenging raw material to convert into value added products, because of its complex molecular and polymeric nature. Thus, the research aimed at lignin is still at primitive stage.  Hence, there is a huge opportunity to play around lignin feedstock to discover new chemical syntheses pathways and make lignin derivatives commercially attractive.  This will open up new streams in lignin chemistry, thus the wood science will expand. Therefore, lignin could emerge as a potential substitute for petroleum in the near future as the preferred raw material.

In this regard, I would like to share a piece of information to our blog readers. We at Materials Chemistry Research Laboratory, Turku University Centre for Materials & Surfaces, recently initiated a collaboration with Finland’s biggest pulp and paper manufacturer, the United Paper Mills (UPM), to utilize their lignin waste as feedstock for the production of chemicals, surface coating and even energy storage materials (Super capacitors). Currently we are developing lignin-coating solutions for water repellent packaging applications and lignin esters for plastic resins. The initial results are promising and motivate us to move forward in this direction. This kind of material applications research is very new to our research group; hence, we are thrilled and excited. Our ultimate aim is to design and develop a super capacitor based on lignin for charge storage devices, which is very relevant to the expertise and history of our group.

 Lokesh Kesavan
TCSM Post-Doctoral Researcher

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