Lignin

New Lignin Based Platform for Fuel, Chemicals and Materials

VERTORO, founded May 2017, is a spin-off of Chemelot Institute for Science & Technology (InSciTe 1 ), a Dutch public-private research and technical validation institute established by Eindhoven University of Technology, Maastricht University, Royal DSM, and the Brightlands Chemelot Campus.

About

InSciTe works side by side with more than 35 partners, including 5 universities, on developing smart biomedical applications and biobased building blocks.

Our company is venture capital backed 2 and is a partner in 2 active EU Funded projects in the biobased (lignin) domain, including IDEALFUEL 3 (H2020-883753) and Meer doen met lignine 4 (EFRO OPZUID).

We are a team of 11 (2 founders, 7 employees, and 2 advisors), well representing both genders, spanning a wide age diversity (30- to 50+), and covering no less than 8 nationalities.

Our overall goal is to launch a new, sustainable platform, GOLDILOCKS®, which could one day rival fossil oil as the go-to feedstock for fuels, chemicals and materials.

Inspired by the tech-unicorns of Silicon Valley, we are true believers in Blitzscaling and the associated asset-light approach to rapid scaling.

Following this strategy, we have realized a jump from TRL1-2 to TRL5-6 in just over 2 years by making optimal use of existing lab, bench and pilot facilities.

This allowed us to allocate nearly all resources towards expanding our IP portfolio and business development. TRL7-8 and 9 are forecasts to be realized in 2021 and 2023, respectively; made possible by a recently announced strategic collaboration with Sekab, a Swedish chemical and cleantech company 5 .

Challenge

Global fossil oil consumption is over 5 billion tons. Oil is not only used to produce fuels, but its derivatives can be found in almost all chemicals and materials we use in everyday life.

Unfortunately, this is, in the long run, unsustainable. Luckily, Mother Nature provides us with a viable alternative; lignin.

Lignin is a natural (aromatic) polymer, which (in the form of lignocellulose) is produced by photosynthesis at an annual rate of roughly 20 billion tons 6 .

Over 0.1 billion tons of lignin is isolated from lignocellulose in paper pulp- and cellulosic ethanol plants each year. For want of a higher value application, nearly all this lignin is burned onsite for energy.

Lignin certainly checks the low-value and widely available boxes for a viable fossil oil replacement, but suffers from a one major handicap; its physical state.

Both the oil and downstream petrochemical sectors are tailored exclusively to liquid inputs and cannot readily process solid feeds like lignocellulose and lignin.

The opportunity to seize here is lignin.

The challenge to tackle is to demonstrate a techno-economical pathway towards a liquid variant that bridge the biobased and fossil worlds, thereby gradually offsetting fossil oil as the go-to feedstock for fuels, chemicals and materials.

Solution

Our brand name was inspired by the so-called Goldilocks principle, which is named by analogy to the children’s story “The Three Bears”, in which a little girl named Goldilocks tastes three different bowls of porridge and finds that she prefers porridge that is neither too hot nor too cold, but has a temperature that is just right.

This concept of just right is easily understood and frequently applied to a wide range of disciplines, including developmental psychology, biology, astronomy, economics, and engineering.

In our case, we apply the principle relates to molecular size ( Table 1 ). Lignin in its natural state is a polymer, which has countless high-value functionalities, including its ability to serve as an anti-oxidant, fire-retardant, resin, UV(B) blocker, and antimicrobial agent.

These properties date back several hundred million years when lignin first emerged on the scene, allowing erstwhile wholly cellulosic aquatic life to thrive also on land for the first time. Aforementioned functionalities were an evolutionary response to such intrinsic terrestrial pressures, notably gravity, sunlight and atmospheric oxygen.

Lignin in its natural, solid, polymeric state is difficult to process in existing oil refineries and petrochemical plants. Lignin monomers, conversely, being a liquid, are easy to process, but forego most of aforementioned functionalities and are furthermore expensive to produce.

Lignin oligomers are cheap to produce and are easy to process, as they are both solvent-soluble and melt-flowable.

Moreover, this particular embodiment retains all natural high-value characteristics of the parent lignin. Considered just right, we decided to brand this oligomeric lignin platform as GOLDILOCKS®.

Technology & Markets

  • WO2019053287 – Lignin to Goldilocks platform and applications

There are two main IP families that underpin the GOLDILOCKS® platform ( Figure 1 ).The first ( Figure 1 , top RED block, WO2019053287) subjects technical (i.e., lignin ex-paper pulp- or cellulosic ethanol plants) lignin to a mild (<200°C) solvolysis.

This effectively fractionates lignin into two distinct product streams, char and GOLDILOCKS®, comprising high and low molecular weight lignin fragments, respectively.

Char, as will be discussed later, has several applications, including as a bitumen replacement in asphalt and coke for energy production.

One key differentiator of GOLDILOCKS® lignin is that it is solvent soluble. Depending on the solvent selected, various product market combinations can be targeted ( Figure 1 , top BLUE block). For instance, GOLDILOCKS® solubilized in (fossil) phenol and polyols results in a more sustainable feedstocks for phenolic resins (e.g., black car blinker switches, cooking pan handles) and polyurethane (e.g., insulation foam, seat cushions, car bumpers), respectively.

Moving now to the energy market, methanol (fossil or bio), ethanol and/or glycerol, a residual product from biodiesel production, can serve as a carrier for GOLDILOCKS®, resulting in a more sustainable shipping fuel.

These and more applications are claimed in WO2019053287.

 

Goldilocks platform Figure 1 . Goldilocks technology platform and applications.

 

  • EP19200489.3 – Lignocellulose to Goldilocks platform

The hype around lignin notwithstanding, we have found it difficult to source mere tons for our pilot plant campaigns. As demo and commercial scale operation would require securing contracts for 10.000+ and 100.000+ tons per annum, respectively, feedstock security would become a major risk for us.

To hedge our bets, we modified aforementioned recipe, so as to also accommodate lignocellulose, which is a far more abundant and already commoditized feedstock. ( Figure 1 , bottom RED block, EP19200489.3).

This route, too, employs solvolysis chemistry, but now under mildly acidic conditions. The acid, typically sulfuric acid, is required in order to liberate lignin from the lignocellulosic matrix.

Instead of char, now cellulose is the solid residual stream co-produced alongside GOLDILOCKS®. As discussed earlier, cellulose has many established market outlets, including cellulosic ethanol and paper pulp.

  • EP19176276.4 and WO2019177458 – Goldilocks to base chemicals

In aforementioned applications, existing fossil products are blended with a more sustainable alternative GOLDILOCKS®, a blending strategy that is analogous to the mandated presence of ethanol in gasoline.

While, like ethanol, GOLDILOCKS® can function properly in existing hardware designed for fossil products / feedstocks, it is something completely different on a molecular level.

As will elaborated upon in the Impact section, there is considerable market interest for molecularly identical, but more sustainable alternatives, particularly in the bulk chemicals sector.

While we do not believe in, for reasons explained earlier, directly converting lignin or lignocellulose into such (monomeric) chemicals.

Producing important bulk products ( Figure 1 , middle-bottom right BLUE blocks) like phenol (WO2019177458) and BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene; EP19176276.4) indirectly, however, via GOLDILOCKS® platform, can be very attractive, particularly when existing fossil legacy assets (fluid catalytic crackers, hydrocrackers) can be utilized for the associated chemistry.

  • IP in progress

GOLDILOCKS®, as discussed earlier, is a solid thermoplastic material, with several high value attributes, including its ability to serve as an antioxidant, fire-retardant, resin, UV(B) blocker, and antimicrobial agent.

Applications currently under development included the use of GOLDILOCKS® a 3D print filament and UV stabilizer ( Figure 1 , top right BLUE blocks).

UNIQUE SELLING POINTS

  • Simplicity

Most biobased innovations have their origins rooted in academic research. Universities strive to publish in the highest impact journals, which tend to publish relatively complex science.

As a result, the resulting technology will likewise be complex, which tends to correlate with high costs and risks, as well as long times to market.

As discussed in the previous Section, lignin, a solid, should be transformed into liquid in order to feed existing oil refineries and/or petrochemical plants (top right).

The conventional strategy to achieve this is crack lignin down to small molecules (monomers) by means of for example heterogeneous catalysis or supercritical reforming (bottom left). While scientifically more appealing, aiming for lignin monomers is prohibitively expensive.

Rather than prioritizing sophisticated science, VERTORO looked instead for the most low-tech means of turning lignin into a liquid.

This research manifested in a proprietary solvolysis technology that leaves the lignin structure intact by selectively extracting lignin oligomers (GOLDILOCKS®), which have the added benefit of retaining all natural and high value lignin functionalities like UV stabilization and antioxidant protection.

  • Platform approach

Most actors in the biobased economy excel in the conversion of biomass into one specific type of application.

Borregaard, for instance, specialized in vanilla, while companies like Clariant, Neste and POET-DSM produce biofuels. For biomass to successfully supplant fossil oil, as is our ambition, we should think and operate like oil majors, which tend to adhere to the so-called 10/90 rule.

This holds that 90% of a barrel of oil goes into the energy market and contributes to 10% of total profits, while 10% is sold into the chemicals and materials markets, generating 90% of total profits 7 .

One needs to combine the vast scale of the energy market in order to profitably produce lower volumes for higher value markets. Fossil oil processing is accordingly at its most profitable when it is used as a platform for fuels, chemicals and materials.

Our GOLDILOCKS® approach to lignin mimics these best practices of the fossil world, by offering a lignin-based platform for fuels, chemicals and materials, whereby the solvent to be used is tailored to the targeted product-market combination.

 

Written by Dr. ir. Michael Boot, MBA, Owner/Director at Vertoro BV

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