As a byproduct of the paper industry, which can only use the cellulose fibers contained in wood, lignin is readily available. Most of the time, this lignin is burned for energy recuperation purposes. Only 1% is used as an additive in the production of asphalt and rubber for car tires. “These are examples of low-end applications of lignin,” says Walter Eevers, R&D director at VITO. “The research carried out by Kaneka and VITO will focus on utilizing lignin’s unique characteristics for the creation of new and better plastics.”
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Kaneka and VITO investigate biobased polymers in Flanders
To achieve that goal, VITO uses a ‘depolymerizing’ technology that splices the lignin into its separate chemical components. Eevers: “Look at lignin as a bowl of spaghetti, a form that’s hard or even impossible to remodel. What we do is to cut it into separate pieces, which we then remodel into the biobased building blocks for new chemical structures.”
One of those building blocks is already being used in Norway to produce vanillin, a synthetic alternative for vanilla. Kaneka, on the other hand, aims to commercialize on a larger scale, concentrating on adhesives and fitting applications in construction and industry.
A budget of EUR 2.5 million has been earmarked for this R&D project, split fifty-fifty between Kaneka and the government of Flanders (through support agency Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship, known as VLAIO). In addition, VITO will provide a test installation to recover and purify the lignin-based chemical building blocks. Kaneka will then incorporate these materials in its MS polymer as a base resin for adhesives and fittings.
“Lignin has a robust structure, great adhesion power and excellent moisture-resistant qualities,” says Luc Peeters, R&D manager at Kaneka. The company’s choice of Flanders as the location for its pioneering research is no coincidence. Kaneka’s site in Westerlo already serves as the firm’s European headquarters, and the Japanese business recently invested EUR 34 million in the expansion of its local MS polymer production site. This investment even earned it the 2018 Foreign Investment of the Year Trophy, presented by Flanders Investment & Trade.