The increasing burden of climate change and resource depletion is leading society to rethink our largely fossil-based chemical industry. Given that most of our chemicals are made from carbon, renewable solutions are likely to come from the only two large sources of renewable carbon on the planet: atmospheric carbon dioxide and plants. However, technologies to convert carbon dioxide are still far from practical, while the lack of cost-competitive solutions has limited the implementation of plant-based products. New breakthrough methods to valorize molecules from natural materials, such as wood or plants in general, will therefore play a central role in promoting the switch to bio-based feedstocks.
In terrestrial plants, "lignin" - the second largest biopolymer on earth after cellulose and the largest natural source of aromatic molecules - has evolved to provide a range of functions to the plant. Beyond its main function, which is to provide structural cohesion to counter gravity, lignin protects the plant cell from environmental stresses, such as UV light, bacterial and fungal contamination or oxidative agents. These properties are given by well defined bioactive internal structural motifs, that only have only recently begun to be understood and that could potentially hold tremendous value for the pharmaceutical industry.
Yet today, there are no industrial methods able to extract these naturally occurring molecules. The reasons is that lignin is a very reactive polymer that has a strong propensity to aggregate (condense), making the isolation of those structural motifs impossible. The Laboratory of Catalytic and Sustainable Processing (LPDC) has recently developed and scaled the ground-breaking Aldehyde-Assisted Fractionation method (AAF) that prevents undesired aggregation reactions of the polymer, opening the door to the first large scale production of these bio-active molecules.
The present project will investigate the selective depolymerisation of lignin into bio-active motifs and characterize the composition of the products. Partners will support this work with piloting facilities and using various depolymerisation methods. Overall, the endeavour aims at developing the first cost-competitive biorefining concept able to serve a range of confirmed markets, including fragrances, cosmetics, micro- fibrillated cellulose as well as the nutraceutical and pharmaceutical industries. The successful identification and production of bio-active molecules will have a game-changing impact on the process cost- competitiveness and allow much smaller production units to be commercially viable, thereby significantly reducing the time to market for biorefining technologies, like the one developed here.
What is special about the project?
The project has the potential to disrupt the viability of the biorefinery concepts. Given the importance of sustainable, fossil-free materials going forward, it is of formost importance to develop processes that gain rapid market acceptance. This is only possible if the prices are matching current petroleum-derived products. The Intellectual Property in high-value applications, such as bioactive molecule, aim at strengthen the techno-economics of the current process and accelerate market entry. Furthermore, Series A investment will be more attractive if high returns generated by bioactive molecules can be confimed.
Aldehyde-Assisted Fractionnation (AAF) process has already been tested at pilot scale and the performances are unprecedented. The main advantage is that - for the first time - some natural structures can be maintained during the extraction process, opening countless doors for the production of new sustainable materials.
Yet, bioactivity of these materials, which is one of the most promising path, has not yet been explored. Indeed, plants have evolved a lot of structures to protect themselves against envionmental stresses, should it be UV light, oxidative stress or defense against microbes. In this project, these activities will be assessed for AAF lignin materials in order to develop high-value applications, such as cosmetics, fertilizers, pesticides or pharmaceuticals. EPFL has granted an exclusive license to the technology to Bloom Biorenewables SA, a spin-off created by employees of the laboratory. Over the past two years, Bloom established a strong network of academic and industrial partners in Switzerland and accros Europe to develop new bio-based applications. Overall, the team raised CHF 3.9M, mainly from non-dilutive R&D and technology transfer grants. A sucessful outcome of this project will contribute to Bloom’s ambition to build a demonstration unit in Q2 2022.
The team is now working on the kg scale and able to produce 100g samples for customer pilots. The lignin is currently been depolymerized to produce oligomers that will serve as a basis for further investigation.
YM Questell-Santiago, MV Galkin, K Barta, JS Luterbacher, Nature Reviews Chemistry, 2020, Stabilization strategies in biomass depolymerization using chemical functionalization;
S Bertella, JS Luterbacher Trends in Chemistry, CellPress, 2020, Lignin Functionalization for the Production of Novel Materials;
MT Amiri, GR Dick, YM Questell-Santiago, JS Luterbacher Nature protocols 14 (3), 921-954, 2019 Fractionation of lignocellulosic biomass to produce uncondensed aldehyde-stabilized lignin;
W Lan, JB de Bueren, JS Luterbacher Angewandte Chemie International Edition 58 (9), 2649-2654, 2019, Highly Selective Oxidation and Depolymerization of , Diol Protected Lignin;
F. Héroguel, X. T. Nguyen, J. S. Luterbacher. ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng. 2019, 7, 16952 16958. Catalyst Support and Solvent Effects during Lignin Depolymerization and Hydrodeoxygenation.
Richard Vendamme, Jean Behaghel de Bueren et al., ACS Biomac. 2020 Oct 12;21(10):4135-4148, Aldehyde-Assisted Lignocellulose Fractionation Provides Unique Lignin Oligomers for the Design of Tunable Polyurethane Bioresins.
Persons involved in the project
Last update to this project presentation 28.10.2020