Normally, plastics arebased on petroleum. A research group at the Technical University of Hamburg has developed an interesting alternative. The starting material is biomass, such as waste wood or straw. The result is lignin, a biopolymer that matches multiple applications.

The challenge: New applications for renewable bio-polymers

Plastics from biomass have two decisive advantages: They use renewable raw materials and do not become a recycling problem after use.

An excellent base material is lignin, the second most abundant plant compound on earth. This biopolymer accumulates in the plant cell wall, thereby causing its lignification. For straw and wood, for example, its share is 20-30%.

A lignin-based plastic would not only be based on a raw material that’s available everywhere in abundance. It would also be an environmentally friendly plastic that is completely non-toxic and biodegradable.

The solution: High quality bio-plastic without recycling problems

An international research team at the Institute of Thermal Process Engineering at the Technical University of Hamburg has been working on the subject of lignin and is well on the way to opening up completely new application areas for biopolymers. M.Sc. Wienke Reynolds, M.Sc. Joana Gil Chavez and B.Sc. Daniela Arango are graduates in process engineering and want to develop new markets with their technology for producing a non-toxic and near-natural lignin fraction.

The starting material is lignocellulose, which is contained in large quantities in residues of agriculture and forestry. The lignin is released using a patented high-pressure cascade that requires only CO2, water and enzymes. The process can be adjusted in a targeted manner to the particular particle properties required and can be optimally adapted to a wide variety of regionally available raw materials.

Due to the absolutely atoxic nature of the lignin of the TU Hamburg, for example, a use in pharmacy and cosmetics is conceivable. The material acts as an antioxidant and provides inherent flame resistence, which also opens up completely new possibilities for building insulation. In addition, polymer compounds can be produced for 3D printing and for plastic injection molding.

The pilot plant operated by the researchers can produce up to 100 kg of hydrolytically produced lignin per month. One of the first end products is a bio-adhesive tape developed in cooperation with tesa in Hamburg.

In general, the research team finds ideal conditions for its development work within the metropolitan region of Hamburg. This makes it possible to draw on the close networking between research and industry. Participating partners include companies like Dr. Ing. Straetmans, Verbio, tesa SE, Draeger and Amandus Kahl as well as Hamburg support institutions, such as TUTECH and the Startup Dock.

Potential: Innovative lignin products with environmental benefits

LignoPure is the name of the spin-off initiative at the Technical University of Hamburg. The research team is currently applying for project funding under the EXIST program of the Federal Ministry for Research and Energy (BMFE). The planned time frame for the project is expected to be up to 2 years.

After creating the economic conditions, the young team under the name of LignoPure wants to tackle the goal of establishing the technology for industrial production of high-quality lignin. In addition, the three founders want to engage in consulting, application development and prototype development in the field of sophisticated lignin products.

in Numbers

researchers at the TU Hamburg
pilot plant for the extraction of lignin
annual market growth for biopolymers


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