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Project Transforms Lignin to Composites as Alternative to Fossil-based Materials

Published on 2024-01-31. Edited By : SpecialChem

TAGS:  Sustainability and Bioplastics     Thermoplastic Composites   

Project Transforms Lignin to Composites as Alternative to Fossil-based MaterialsSonichem, an innovative clean tech company, embarked on a transformative project with the Innovation Centre for Applied Sustainable Technologies (iCAST). The aim was to harness the potential of lignin in developing advanced sustainable materials. This would offer an alternative solution to fossil-derived materials.

Formerly known as Bio-Sep, Sonichem produces green chemicals with ultrasonic technology. Their mission is maximizing the value of green resources sustainably to benefit future generations. iCAST uniquely combines experts across innovation stages. It unites industry and academia to translate discoveries into commercial applications.

Identifying Viable Commercial Prospects for Lignin Composites

Lignin, a naturally occurring organic substance, is particularly prevalent in woody plants. It plays a pivotal role in the construction of cell walls in wood and bark. This contributes to structural integrity and resistance to decay.

Despite its abundance, lignin often ends up as a by-product of the papermaking process. It is underutilized and discarded or incinerated due to its limited commercial applications.

Lignin is a 100% bio-derived, renewable product. It can be used as a replacement to fossil-derived materials in composite products. The applications are as diverse as sports equipment and construction materials. There exists a wealth of academic literature on this subject, but little, if any, has made its way into commercial use.

The challenge tackled at the NCC revolved around identifying viable commercial prospects for using lignin in composite materials. This supports shifting from fossil-derived materials, reducing environmental impact while utilizing lignin's fire- and UV-resistance.

The NCC supports sustainable materials research including biopolymers like lignin, flax and wool. The partnership with iCAST pushed composites possibilities using Sonichem’s products. The NCC provided engineering services in testing, manufacturing, formulation and analysis.

Suitable for Treatment and Manufacturing Due to Solubility and Low Viscosity

Utilizing calorimetry and rheology, the team determined optimal processing parameters crucial for manufacturing. They produced composite components leveraging NCC's formulation and compression molding expertise. The influence of lignin on material's mechanical performance was measured by testing. Finally, the results of the wider project were drawn together to make recommendations for suitable commercialization routes.

This collaboration led to the successful manufacture of various components using biomaterials. The partnership provided valuable insights into the integration of Sonichem's lignin into composites.

Analysis showed Sonichem’s lignin’s remarkable suitability for treatment and manufacturing due to solubility and low viscosity. Unlike other lignins, the Sonichem material has high solubility in a range of organic solvents. This means that it is ideal for chemical reactions that are known to enhance the material properties, such as fire resistance. Improved solubility implies both that existing reactions may be easier and that new reactions will be accessible.

Sonichem’s lignin also displayed the unique ability to melt and flow at sufficiently low temperature. This facilitates fiber impregnation, meaning that it is well-placed for development into composite molding materials.

45% Lower Global Warming Potential than Equivalent, Fossil-derived Material

Previous lifecycle assessment (LCA) data from the NCC Bio-Bolster project gives an illustrative picture of the potential impact that biomaterials can have in composites. In Bio-Bolster, wind turbine manufacturing was modeled with a range of commercial bioresins as a demonstration of biomaterial use in high value composites. It revealed that a representative bio resin had a 45% lower global warming potential than the equivalent, fossil-derived material.

In this project, adding lignin boosted biogenic carbon content of a bioepoxy from 50% to 60%. Biogenic carbon is the carbon that is, or in this case, was stored in biological materials, such as plants or soil. The hope is that through subsequent research, larger fractions of lignin may be used, further boosting the biogenic carbon content.

Despite the formal closure of this project, some activities remain ongoing. It will continue to build the impact of this program. Composite designers are concerned about the long-term environmental durability of emerging biomaterials—an aspect rarely tested and not well modeled. Leveraging the intrinsic UV-resistance found in lignin, the objective is to conduct a comparative analysis of durability between materials with and without added lignin. This can build consumer confidence in bio composites by substantiating the potential of lignin to enhance and ensure the enduring performance of these materials over time.

Dr Andy West CChem. CSci. FRSC, chief chemist, Sonichem Technologies Limited says, "We believe Sonichem lignin has the ability to significantly defossilise the chemicals industry of the future, and this project, aided by skilled and knowledgeable staff and world-class equipment at the NCC, has helped us to investigate a key application area where the use of lignin could have a huge impact on global sustainability."

"Our work has paved the way for further collaborations, and the wider network of the NCC and iCAST will be highly valuable to promote our findings and achieve real-world impact."

Dr Callum Branfoot, MRSC, research engineer, Materials Science, NCC says, "The outcomes of this project underscore the transformative impact of sustainable materials. The project has highlighted the potential of lignin in composites, however challenges still remain. We eagerly anticipate continued collaborations with Sonichem to turn sustainable composite materials into a reality."

"We encourage companies with an interest in our work to participate and engage in the NCC's research programs to become part of a sustainable future."

Next steps

The journey is far from over. An innovative UK project is on the horizon, welcoming new partners to further explore and develop lignin's potential. This project aims to tackle challenges and unlock the full capabilities of lignin in composites.

Businesses of all sizes can actively engage with NCC's upcoming materials and sustainability-focused research programs. This includes prospective customers interested in sustainable bio materials and manufacturing capabilities, with a particular focus on SMEs.

Source: National Composites Centre

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