Is lignincrude oil offuture? Maybe so, thanks toSun photocatalysts!

Is lignin the crude oil of the future? Maybe so, thanks to the Sun and photocatalysts!

10:13 AM, 6th February 2016
Is lignin the crude oil of the future? Maybe so, thanks to the Sun and photocatalysts!
A step towards photo biorefineries: photocatalysts from the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, Poland, transform lignin-based model compounds into useful chemical substances.

WARSAW, POLAND: We associate refineries with crude oil and a dense tangle of technical fittings. They may, however, change in the future – if crude oil is replaced by lignin, a product currently treated as industrial waste.

The research route leading towards this goal is being paved by new photocatalysts, developed by the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IPC PAS) in Warsaw. They allow lignin-based model compounds to be transformed into useful chemical substances; in addition, the reactions take place under conditions that occur in nature.

We are being brought a step closer to cheap solar biorefineries capable of processing lignin on an industrial scale by the new photocatalysts developed at the IPC PAS in cooperation with the Warsaw University of Technology and the University of Cordoba.

In nature, lignin is present primarily in wood, where it is responsible for wood's consistency and hardness. The lignin content of wood is typically from 10 to 40 percent depending on the tree species (the species also affects the chemical composition of the lignin).

In industry, lignin is produced in large quantities during the manufacture of paper, as a waste product in the wood softening process.

“From the chemical point of view lignin is a natural polymer with a very complex three-dimensional structure, constructed of, among others, many derivative aromatic compounds including those from various phenyl alcohols. This chemical richness makes lignin a potentially very interesting raw material for the chemical industry. Unfortunately, at the same time, this is its curse, because it is difficult to develop chemical reactions that would efficiently transform lignin into a specific, single chemical compound, readily suitable for further processing,” said prof Juan Carlos Colmenares (IPC PAS).

The difficulty in processing lignin means that today it is an industrial waste product of minimum significance that is burdensome for the environment: only 2 percent of its reserves are further processed, and the resulting chemical compounds are, in any case, of relatively small added value. A step towards the industrial transformation of lignin into valuable chemical intermediates is being taken by the development of two new photocatalysts.

Their main component is titanium dioxide TiO2, deposited on a suitably selected carrier: in one case these are nanocomposites containing iron oxide Fe2O3, and in the second – zeolites (aluminosilicates), with a small addition of iron. The photocatalyst with iron oxide nanocomposites came about in close cooperation with scientists from Spain, led by prof Rafael Luque.

“In order to ensure the most uniform coverage of the particles, the process of deposition of titanium dioxide on the medium is carried out in the presence of ultrasounds, according to a method developed at our Institute,” said Colmenares.

In laboratory studies at the Institute, lignin with the addition of either one or other of the photocatalysts was exposed to ultraviolet light, simulating the spectrum of incoming radiation from the Sun. Both catalysts proved surprisingly effective in the transformation of the benzyl alcohol present in the structure of lignin into a benzaldehyde, a substance used, among others, in the production of dyes and in the perfume industry.

 In the best case, after only four hours, up to half of the original benzyl alcohol content of lignin underwent conversion. It turned out that in a solution that had reacted with the participation of photocatalysts there was up to 90 percent of the target substance.

“In the presence of our photocatalysts, illuminated by light imitating solar radiation, the reactions took place spontaneously in lignin-based model compounds, at ordinary atmospheric pressure and at a temperature of approx 30 degrees centigrade, thus in conditions naturally occurring in direct sunlight. This is the exact opposite of traditional refineries, which require very complicated and expensive to maintain technical infrastructure,” said Colmenares.

The new photocatalysts have one more advantage: they are cheap, because they do not require expensive precious metals, such as palladium, and their carriers are common materials. In addition, one of the photocatalysts has magnetic properties and thus after conversion has taken place, it can be easily recovered from the solution and reused.

The results obtained by the scientists from Warsaw and Cordoba are promising; however, they only apply to photocatalysts with model compounds. For the photocatalysts to effectively process real lignin – heterogeneous and often with a varying chemical composition – further studies and tests are required.

The work on photocatalysts involved a group of employees of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering of the Warsaw University of Technology, headed by prof Krzysztof Kurzydlowski. 

© IPC PAS News

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