Lignin could become the main renewable aromatic resource for the chemical industry in the future, according to an analysis by Frost & Sullivan. The first opportunity could emerge as early as 2015 from the direct substitution of phenol in most of its industrial applications: phenolic resins, surfactants, epoxy resins, adhesives or polyester, the study states.
“The industry is just beginning to scratch the surface of lignin's potential," explains Frost & Sullivan consultant, Nicolas Smolarski. “It is the only renewable source for industrial aromatics production and is de-correlated from the fluctuating price of oil."
Lignin represents 30% of all the non-fossil organic carbon on Earth. Compared to other wood components (cellulose and hemicelluloses), it is a much more complex polymer, but has been considered for a long time a low-quality and low-added-value material.
For example, says the Frost & Sullivan analysis, as of 2010, the pulp and paper industry produced an estimated 50 million tonnes of extracted lignin, but only 2% (1 million tonnes) was commercially used for low-value products such as dispersing or binding agents; the rest was burnt as a low-value fuel.
Overall, the lignin business today represents roughly 300 million dollars.
However, new, developing technologies now allow the extraction of high-purity lignin which can be converted in various high-value chemicals and products, among which are BTX (benzene, toluene, xylene), phenol, vanillin or carbon fibre.
Smolarski explains that “one of lignin's unique strength is that it can either be used directly as a “drop in” to replace phenols in an existing petrochemical process, or it can be further processed to create polymer building blocks."
Inevitably, unlocking the potential of lignin involves taking down some barriers. “Limited technology maturity, weak links between R&D efforts and the industry, biofuel development draining government mandates and lack of funding options for biochemicals biorefiners are some of the main challenges to the emergence of cost-competitive lignin applications," adds Smolarski.
Frost & Sullivan explores these challenges and their potential, and proposes a roadmap for the 10 years ahead. In his analysis, Smolarski also reviews four promising lignin applications and extends a call for action to petrochemical companies.
“The petrochemical industry holds by far the highest capacity to accelerate the emergence of lignin-based chemicals. Being the first mover on this market can assure technology leadership, strategic partnerships and a competitive edge," concludes Mr Smolarski.
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