With just over two weeks to go to the start of the Lignin 2014 international conference, its organisers express satisfaction at the wide range of speakers and attendees having signed up to hear of the latest scientific progress and future applications of lignin, one of the most abundant polymers in plants and so the wood of trees. The discussions are set to cover both the biological and chemical side of lignin research—in fact, a chief objective is to bring the two sides together in one conference—and with an entire session devoted to industrial development of lignin applications. Beginning of August, 144 people had signed up to attend the conference, together with 21 presenters who represent the absolute top-runners in the science or industrial application of lignin.
Notably, confirmed speakers include John Ralph and Norman Lewis, both active at American universities; and Wout Boerjan in Belgium. All three are at the forefront of developing the basic science of lignin and notably its biosynthesis and analysis. On the side of industrial application, Martin Lersch of the multinational Borregaard biorefinery group, as well as Hans Grundberg from the Bio4Energy industrial partner Domsjö Fabriker biorefinery at Örnsköldsvik, will give talks. So will the man who summarised knowledge of the development of industrial lignin applications in a string of scientific review articles: Art Ragauskas.
Already lignin and so-called derivatives made or extracted from it are being used in building construction materials and as food supplements. Medical applications are being developed. For instance, the Borregaard biorefinery group had shown that lignin derivatives are suitable for use as flavouring agents in food, Jönsson said. Notably, the group has invented a vanilla extract. Using lignin may thus serve to take some of the synthetic chemicals out of food. Jönsson added that bulk production does not have to be a prerequisite for new product applications to be economically viable.
'New products… do not need be to quantitatively important to have a large economic impact. Most of the lignin used today is used to produce energy. This is not optimal from an economic point of view.
'If we can find more high value-added products this will be critical for the development of the biorefinery industry.
'There is also the possibility of producing aromatic substances based on renewable materials', Jönsson noted. Products based on aromatics have traditionally drawn on crude oil as a feedstock and many types of plastics are made this way, although not all.
On the practical side of things, Tuominen said that in the part of the scientific community working to develop applications, the heat was on to find a way to redesign lignin molecules in trees. The purpose would be to design a tree from which wood lignin could be extracted with less harsh methods than those used by scientists today.
'This is the hottest research issue right now', Tuominen said.