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Advances in Wood Biomass-derived Chemicals

Pascal Xanthopoulos – Apr 2, 2018

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. R&D initiatives are currently very dynamic in this area.

R&D Projects for the Valorization of Wood Cellulose


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.

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.

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.


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.


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

R&D Projects for the Valorization of Extractives from Wood


Research initiatives focus on the development of bio-based adhesives in particle board applications. R&D programs are also ongoing to use tannins as an alternative to bisphenol A for the manufacture of bio-based epoxy resins in food packaging, floor coatings and paint applications.

New developments concentrate on the hydrophobization of catechic tannins towards innovative insulating foams.

The bio-based tannin foams exhibit a thermal insulation capacity comparable to totally synthetic, oil-derived foams, such as polyurethanes. Their advantage is that they do not burn and thus, do not emit toxic gases on burning.

Advancement in Wood Extracts


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.


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.

1 Comments on "Advances in Wood Biomass-derived Chemicals"
Sohel R Apr 13, 2018

in-cosmetics Global 2019
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