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Advancements in Wood Biomass Derived Bio-products

Using bioresources for producing products with high added value is becoming more and more important in the context of biotechonomy. It is because of this reason that formulators are researching to create innovative, novel biomaterials with a reduced carbon footprint to reinvent materials with a greener approach.

Explore here, the latest research activities in lignin, wood hemicellulose-derived sugars, wood extracts... driving the development in biomass derived chemicals. Also, find out the list of potential barriers related to technology, market, and resources towards the development of bio-products. Review:


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A-Z Knowledge on Wood-derived Chemicals


TAGS:  Natural/ Organic       

Development in Wood Biomass-derived ChemicalsThe main chemical components of wood are cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin and extractives.

Paper manufacturers, wood bio-refineries and extraction companies already isolate such wood constituents for the manufacture of a broad range of products. These products are successfully marketed in many applications today, such as:


  • Paper and paperboard
  • Cosmetics
  • Food supplements
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Specialty chemicals
  • Detergence
  • Aroma
  • Construction materials
  • And more

However, wood chemicals continue to offer opportunities for new product developments. These products can meet the requirements of various industrial sectors in search for new effect and bio-based chemicals alternative to oil-based products.


Continue reading to get the in-depth knowledge about:



R&D initiatives are currently very dynamic in this area. Let's take a look at the advances in wood biomass-derived chemicals...


#1. R&D Projects for the Valorization of Wood Cellulose


Nanocellulose


Research initiatives focus on the use of nanocellulose as a strength enhancing additive for renewable and biodegradable matrix polymers such as PLA. Research also concentrates on the development of porous nanocellulosic materials for insulation & packaging.

New coatings are also being developed with outstanding barrier properties in food packaging and printing paper applications. New developments concentrate on the use of nanocellulose as a rheological modifier in cosmetics (thickener), pharma (tablet binder) and paint applications.

Levoglucosenone (LGO)


Levoglucosenone (LGO) is a biology derived chemical which can be produced from waste cellulose. Current developments focus on LGO conversion to new polar aprotic bio-solvents. These new solvents are alternatives to NMP, DMF and DMAc which are under significant regulatory pressure worldwide due to their toxicity.


#2. R&D Projects for the Valorization of Lignin from Wood


Carbon Fiber


Lignin represents a potential low-cost source of carbon suitable for displacing synthetic polymers, such as: Polyacrylonitrile (PAN) in the production of carbon fiber. Using lignin in the carbon fiber manufacturing process improves:

  • Raw material availability
  • Decreases raw material sensitivity to petroleum cost, and
  • Decreases environmental impacts

The goal of replacing steel panels with lightweight, yet strong, carbon fiber-reinforced plastics is to significantly reduce vehicle weight and improve fuel economy.

Resins and Adhesives


Resins and adhesives offer a large opportunity, especially for formaldehyde-free applications. Formaldehyde is currently considered a carcinogen and its banishment from consumer and packaging goods and building products is highly likely in the near term.

Technical needs and challenges for lignin in this area center on:

  • Effective, practical means for molecular weight and viscosity control
  • Functional group enhancement to improve oxidative and thermal stability, for example:
    • Carbonylation
    • Carboxylation
    • Amination
    • Epoxidation, and
    • De-etherification
  • Consistent mechanical processing properties
  • Control lignin color, and
  • Precise control of cure kinetics

Product consistency in these application targets will also be a technical challenge.

Benefits of Using Lignin

Polymer Modifiers


Polymer modifiers can be simple, low-cost fillers or may be high-value additives that improve various polymer physical or performance properties. Currently, lignin use concentrates on the former; Current research is concentrating on the latter by creating technologies that improve polymer:

  • Alloying
  • Mutual solubility
  • Cross-linking, and
  • Control of color

Relevant technologies include:

  • Predictable molecular weight control
  • Facile introduction of reactive functionality, and
  • Polyelectrolytic functionality

Monomeric Molecules


Very selective depolymerization, also invoking C-C and C-O bond rupture, could yield a plethora of complex aromatics that are difficult to make via conventional petrochemical routes. These complex aromatics include:

  • Propylphenol
  • Eugenol
  • Syringols
  • Aryl ethers
  • Alkylated methyl aryl ethers

Research is concentrating on developing technology that would allow highly selective bond-scission to capture the monomeric lignin building block structures. However, markets and applications for monomeric lignin building blocks would need to be developed.

This development is therefore longest-term and currently has unknown market pull for large-scale use. Since, most of the chemical industry is used to single, pure-molecule raw materials, using mixtures of products in a chemical raw material feed, as would arise from lignin processing, constitutes a challenge.

BTX Molecules (Benzene, Toluene, Xylene)


Developments concentrate on non-selective depolymerization technologies in the form of C-C and C-O bond rupture. This can lead to the production of aromatics in the form of BTX plus phenol and includes aliphatics in the form of C1 to C3 fractions.

Development of the required non-selective chemistries is part of the long-term opportunity. But, it is likely to be achievable sooner than highly selective depolymerizations. In fact, some of the past hydro-liquefaction work with lignin suggests that, with further development, this concept is a good possibility.


#3. R&D Projects for the Valorization of Sugars from Wood


Single Cell Protein (SCP)


SCP consists of microorganisms such as filamentous fungi, yeast, algae, and bacteria that are rich in protein. R&D projects are ongoing to use sugar streams generated by wood biorefineries for the production of single cell protein.

SCP can be used as a protein source in fish feed. SCP can be more a nutritional alternative to the current products used in the aquaculture such as soybean meal in particular. SCP has a high B vitamin content and a tunable amino-acid profile. This GMO-free product is safe, nontoxic and contains no fatty acids.

Bio-surfactants

Potential R&D on Sugars Derived from Wood
Industrial research focuses on the development of new bio-based surfactants, thickeners, emulsifiers, texturing agents from C5 and C6 pure sugars derived from wood hemicelluloses.

These research initiatives are market pull projects to meet the requirements of the cosmetics industry in a continuous search for new bio-based products and effects.

Bio-based Polymers


There are R&D initiatives which focus on the conversion of C6 sugars (glucose, mannose) derived from wood hemicelluloses to diacid and diamines monomers. They are then used for the development of bio-based polyamides.

Bio-fuels


R&D initiatives are focused on the development of new biomass fractionation technologies, like:

  • Acid-based
  • Enzyme-based
  • Solvent-based, or combinations of these chemistries
  • Supercritical water hydrolysis
  • Steam explosion…

All these technologies can economically fractionate the wood biomass to sugar and lignin streams which all need to be valorized.

Research concentrates on developing the most efficient process (biomass treatment, enzymes production, fermentation and distillation) to produce a cost competitive 2G ethanol equivalent to 1G bioethanol.

Bioethanol Production from Biomass
Bioethanol Production from Biomass


#4. R&D Projects for the Valorization of Extractives from Wood


Tannins


Research initiatives focus on the development of bio-based building blocks and systems for PU rigid foams are driven by the Italian company SILVATEAM, a global market leader in the field of wood tannins technology.

Tannins-based technology contributes not only to add a sizable bio-based content in rigid foam formulations, but also confers outstanding thermal conductivity and thermal resistance properties to rigid foams. Other interesting benefits such as anti-dust mite, wettability, flame retardancy, and rust inhibitor (foam in contact with metal surfaces) could also be potentially valued by rigid foam producers.

Advancements in Wood Extracts

Lignans


Lignans are wood extractives, the content of which is particularly high in wood knots. Current R&D initiatives focus on the characterization and the bio-activity of lignans present in various softwood and hardwood tree species. This development can potentially lead to new applications for lignans in the pharma, nutraceuticals and cosmetics industry.

Terpenes


R&D projects focus on the use of phenolic terpene resins for the development of bio-based binder as an alternative to the bitumen mix in waterproofing membranes applications.

Stilbenoids


Indirect effects of current plant protection products are pointed at the environment and human health. There are R&D initiatives focused on the development of new biocontrol fungicide produced from extracts of co-products from the forest industry. Wood co-products contain active polyphenols (e.g, stibenoids in particular) which are effective molecules which can be included in a biocontrol agent formula and used in organic agriculture.

Having learnt about the research areas; let's turn our attention towards the barriers of novel biomaterials derived from wood biomass...


Barriers to the Development of Wood Biomass-derived Bio-products


Wood Biomass-derived Bio-products The most important barriers towards the development of wood bio-based products market are their high pricing in terms of purchase and the technological barriers that still face many of the related processes.

Bio-based products are more expensive than their fossil-fuel derived equivalents. This is because of:

  • High feedstock prices, and
  • High capital and operating costs of related production processes

Many of which are still at an R&D, or demonstration level. The low prices of fossil fuels in the last years worsen the situation as they make the use of wood biomass feedstock economically unattractive.

Let's take a look at the major barriers for a sustainable production and market development of bio-based products derived from wood biomass.


Feedstock Related Barriers


The sawmilling sector is a significant source of wood residues which can be exploited for a chemical valorization by:

  • Extraction companies which extract valuable chemicals from sawdust, knots and barks which contain high amounts of extractives
  • Pulp mill-based refineries which convert wood residues to pulp fibers, celluloses, lignin

The material yield of a sawmill is about 65% for softwoods and 45% for hardwoods. The primary processing enterprises (sawmills) are therefore companies that produce a sizable amount of waste and related products. Main by-products generated by sawmills are wood-chips (37% in volume), sawdust (30% in volume), barks (13% in volume), knots/others (20% in volume).

However, the challenges include:


#1. Lack of Sustainable Availability of Resources


The challenge lies in a sustainable and limited availability of resources related products of sawmills for a chemical valorization since they are coveted simultaneously by different sectors, such as:

  • Wood energy/pellets (barks, sawdust)
  • Particleboards (edgings, sawdust), and
  • Compost (barks)

Energy uses have come to replace uses such as materials, while the wood by-products supply did not increase leading to growing tensions over prices.

Lack of Availability of Resources


#2. Growing Demand for High-quality Hardwood Logs


Another key concern is the rising emerging economy consumption of European logs leading to the shutdown of many sawmills in Europe. As a consequence of a growing demand for timber and tighter domestic forest protection laws, China has become the world’s largest importer and processor of logs.

Taking into consideration the past 10 years, about 350 sawmill plants have shut down in Belgium, France and Germany. This is largely due to competition with non-European companies, which are buying high-quality hardwood logs to be exported and processed outside Europe, depriving European sawmills of necessary raw materials.

The consequence of this process of de-industrialization is a potential lack of a sustainable availability of wood biomass for the production of chemicals. The inadequate availability of wood biomass at the required quantity and price throughout the year is a potential challenge for European biorefineries that are being used in the production of wood bio-based products.


Technology Related Barriers


The conversion of wood biomass to chemicals is a promising alternative to replace petroleum as a renewable source of carbon. However, most of the proposed processes are still currently unable to compete economically with petroleum refineries due, in part, to the incomplete utilization of the streams (lignin, hemicelluloses, cellulose).

As of a matter of fact, several obstacles must be overcome to make sugars, cellulose, and lignin available.

  • Initially, the cellulose is surrounded by hemicellulose, another polysaccharide, which due to its heterogeneric nature, contains a variety of sugars connected by a variety of glycosidic linkages that cannot be hydrolyzed by the cellulolytic enzymes.

  • Furthermore, these carbohydrates are surrounded by lignin, a polymer of substituted phenylpropane units that acts as a further barrier for the cellulolytic enzymes. The enzymatic hydrolysis step remains one of the main obstacles due to the high prices required to produce enzymatic cocktails needed to cope with the recalcitrance of the biomass to extensive enzymatic hydrolysis of cellulose.

Upscaling of Technology for Developing Wood Biomass-derived Products

Consequently, the ideal wood fractionation technology would consist of a process which makes all components (cellulose, lignin, hemicellulose) available at a high yield. The ideal process would contributing to produce hemimono sugars at high yield without enzymes. The ideal process would allow a low charge of cellulose hydrolysis enzymes and would facilitate a full and simple recovery of spent chemicals.

However, the wood fractionation processes which have been developed still face key challenges to be overcome:

  • The explosion pulping process is energy intensive
  • The alkaline treatment process degrades hemicelluloses
  • The acid treatment process leads to the formation of sticky lignin and requires acid recovery
  • The sulfite process can lead to the oxidation of hemicelluloses and requires sulfur recovery
  • The ORGANOSOLV process needs improvement with respect to the recovery and reuse of the involved solvents in order to allow a better cost reduction and energy balance of the process. More efficient isolation and purification of the various fractions down-stream is also essential

Successful commercialization of wood fractionation technology will greatly depend on the development of a continuous process. Such that, the process is able to efficiently fractionate the lignocellulosic components in rates adequate to meet the needs of the industry. New technologies utilizing the sugar and lignin streams as a feedstock for the production of novel chemicals need to mature in order to provide the economic impetus to the wood biomass-based refinery.


Market Related Barriers


Barriers to Develop Building-blocks for the Manufacture of Bioplastics and specialty chemicals


High Cost of Bio-based Building BlocksThe global production of bio-based building blocks (mono-ethylene glycol, mono-propylene glycol, lactic acid, succinic acid …) is expected to grow from 2.6 MMT in 2013 to 5.6 MMT in 2030.

Building blocks are used to produce bio-polymers (polyesters, PLA, polyurethanes, polyamides) and specialty chemicals (biocidal products, bio-lubricants). Bio-based building blocks are currently produced from sugars generated by agricultural feedstock based biorefineries.

The disintegrating wood process to sugars is complex. The cost competitiveness of the resulting wood sugars depends on a successful valorization of all streams (lignin in particular) generated by the sugar pulping process.

Consequently, production costs of bio-based building blocks derived from wood biomass are likely to be higher than their agricultural derived equivalents, because of the high capital and operating costs of wood biomass fractionation processes, many of which are still at an R&D or demonstration level.

Moreover, the low prices of fossil fuels in the last years worsen the situation as they hit the competitiveness of biochemicals products.


Barrier to Develop Bio-based Food and Feed Ingredients


The use of herbal medicines and phytonutrients or nutraceuticals continues to expand rapidly across the world. Many people now resorting to these products for the treatment of various health challenges in different national healthcare settings.

There is a tremendous surge in acceptance and public interest in natural therapies both in developing and developed countries, with plant extracts being available not only in drugstores, but now also in food stores and supermarkets.

However, EU registration of new bio-products, including wood extracts, can be time consuming and expensive. There are important legal restrictions for possible wood feedstock to enter in the bio-based food and feed ingredients value chain. There are wood extracts which need to be granted novel food approval in EU. For example, the magnolia book extract had to be granted novel food approval in EU for use in chewing gum and mints that will allow it to introduce new products with perceived breath-freshening benefits.

Strict Regulations on Food and Feed Items

Moreover, the relevant market is characterized by great heterogeneity. The different legislative requirements in different countries or economic spaces cause practical obstacles in imports/ exports of bio-based food and feed ingredients.

Though the new novel food regulation has recently introduced a faster-centralized authorization procedure where all applications will be submitted directly to the EU Commission instead of to the individual Member States. Applicants are to be aware that in most cases it will still take 2-3 years to access the European market due to supplementary information requests and other regulatory hurdles.

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