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Press release

Press release

Forest owners and industry can get more value from hidden constituents in wood

Forest-dense Finland has a large supply of lignin, a substance that binds wood fibres together and consists of valuable aromatic molecules. Commercially, these molecules are underutilized, and if we could use the existing and novel potential methods to refine the lignin molecules to make them more usable, this would benefit both the global green transition and also strengthen the Finnish and Nordic economies in terms of biomass producers, forest owners and the biomass processing industry. Researchers at Åbo Akademi University will be working on this specifically.

About a quarter of wood is made up of lignin, a substance that occurs in many different variations depending on, for example, tree species or how it is separated from the cellulose and hemicellulose in biomass. Lignin contains valuable, natural aromatic molecules.

Many industries use aromatic compounds, but they are usually of fossil origin, while most of the lignin is instead burned for energy purposes. This could be done smarter. A new research project at Åbo Akademi University will therefore fractionate lignin from various biorefineries and chemically characterize them to get a detailed structural mapping of the fractions. Selected fractions will then be catalytically partially depolymerized into smaller structures with improved properties for selected applications. Once this has been mapped out, various standardized experiments can be used to estimate which of the fractions are suitable for various areas of use, for example, for the production of polymers and adhesives. The fractions can also be further processed to improve their properties, if necessary.

“What we will focus on is to identify from which lignins we can obtain valuable fractions, which in turn can be used as platform molecules for high-quality products. We will also see how the remaining fractions can best be used for other purposes. In this way, the technology we develop can help increase both the degree of processing of wood materials and the economic production. In addition, we will be able to replace fossil raw materials in industry with renewable sources,” says Henrik Grénman, Professor in Chemical Process Intensification at the Laboratory of Industrial Chemistry and Reaction Engineering at Åbo Akademi University, who is leading the project.

The research needs concerning lignin’s aromatic molecules have been raised by the project’s industrial partners and are specifically related to Valmet’s Beyond Circularity ecosystem and Mirka’s Shape ecosystem. The research plan has been developed together with the project’s business partners.

“Based on the results we get, we can select the most interesting products from different sources and focus our research on developing ways to process them. Making better use of the components of lignin can give a competitive advantage in the market, increased profitability and the possibility to use domestic raw materials to a greater extent.

The project Tailored polyphenols and polyols from fractionation and depolymerization of biorefinery lignins runs from 1 January 2024 to 31 December 2026 and is funded by Business Finland and companies with a total budget of approximately EUR 1.34 million. In addition to Åbo Akademi University, BOKU University in Austria, Stockholm University and VITO – Flemish Institute for Technological Research NV in Belgium are taking part. The participating business partners are Mirka, Valmet, CH-Bioforce, UPM Kymmene, MetGen and Montinutra. Consortium members from Åbo Akademi University are the Laboratory of Molecular Science and Engineering (Prof. Patrik Eklund) and the Laboratory of Natural Materials Technology (Prof. Chunlin Xu).

More information:
Henrik Grenman, Professor of Chemical Process Intensification, Åbo Akademi University.
E-mail: henrik.grenman@abo.fi
Telephone: +358 505 764 744