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HUmins as Green and Sustainable precursors of eco-friendly building blocks and materials

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - HUGS (HUmins as Green and Sustainable precursors of eco-friendly building blocks and materials)

Reporting period: 2017-11-01 to 2019-10-31

The European Union is being challenged to reach its goals to replace a major part of its use of fossil feedstock for the production of transportation fuels and commodity polymers in the coming decades. The production of new versatile carbon-based building blocks from biomass resources can provide a unique alternative to avert a massive use of petroleum-based chemicals. Biomass from plant materials is the most important feedstock for food, feed and non-food applications. In the processing of plant materials e.g. maize, corn and sugarcane for starch and sugar and wood for paper, substantial amounts of potentially valuable by-products are produced. To keep the biorefinery operations sound from an environmental and an economical point of view, the pilot plant design, and by extension the future biorefinery development, needs to take into account the valorization of by-products.

The growing interest to develop sustainable biomass conversion processes at large scale has been exemplified by the SME Avantium, a CleanTech top 100 company. HUGS aims to provide an innovative, highly multidisciplinary and top educational program focusing on the valorisation of two key side products that are generated in large quantities in Avantium’s lignocellulosic biorefinery processes. To achieve this, an international network of excellence able to provide both scientific innovation and training in environmentally-sound alternatives is implemented. Three different innovative strategies have been identified from the processing of 2nd generation and waste feedstocks such as agricultural residues and waste paper streams to be employed in the framework of HUGS.

This multi-sectorial research work has contributed to breakthrough knowledge on the catalytic conversion and risk evaluation of side stream products, which is necessary for a sustainable technological development of novel chemical building blocks, materials and fuels based on renewable resources. Furthermore, the project has provided a starting point to change the current perception of waste/side products as a PROBLEM into a more extended, advanced and almost unlimited RESOURCE of valuable products.
The work within the HUGS-project has had a big impact on increasing the scientific knowledge of both the chemical and physical properties of humins and linking these results to industrial requirements. Thorough characterisation of the structure and the physico-chemical properties of humins and thermally treated humins allowed to improve our knowledge on the reactivity under different conditions, strengthened by studies on the kinetics of (auto)crosslinking. The HUGS project combined fundamental research with applied studies on the optimal conditions to obtain humins-derived resins.
The humins have been tested for a wide variety of applications. The applications that show the most promise are humins in composites and as wood impregnation material. Humins were successfully integrated to natural fibres to obtain all green composites, with superior properties comparable with that of other already commercially available composites. The work demonstrated the possibility to use humins based composites in several fields such as automotive or building applications. The use of humins as a resin for wood impregnation was also demonstrated, showing improved properties comparable with furfurylated wood.
Research on the conversion of ML to methyl vinyl ketone and methyl acrylate has given new mechanistic insights into reaction pathways. A synthesis approach was found that provides a green and 100% atom efficient way to utilise ML and produce useful chemicals.
The scope of the HUGS-project was complemented by the physico-chemical safety profiling of biobased chemicals, which did not only focus on humins and ML but extended towards a library of furanics.
The results from the HUGS-project were presented in 53 presentations (oral/poster) and resulted in 32 different publications. On top of all the knowledge and the industrial opportunities that have been generated by the PhD-students, the students have disseminated their learnings in several ways to the public which includes writing blogs, keeping up a Facebook page, theatre shows and symposium organization.
The advent of new biorenewable chemical processes is creating a new scientific environment for applied research and innovation. The research setting of the program HUGS is offering the PhD candidates an excellent jump start for their careers in this new developing field. Because of the acquired interdisciplinary competencies and the scientific challenges of each PhD trajectory of the HUGS project, a successful HUGS project will equally open doors towards a further career in the scientific community as well as a further career in an industrial environment.

The interaction between partners and ESR also extended to other students (HUGS graduate school programs were open to other students) so that benefits were shared within and outside of the network, maximizing the efficiency of the interaction and networking. All HUGS students and their academic and industrial supervisors have attended multiple conferences and were all present at the International Symposium of Green Chemistry (ISGC) in La Rochelle (16-19 May 2017). This gives the industrial and scientific community a clear view of the results being generated within the consortium and the importance of side product valorization within the sustainable biomass industry.
All HUGS PhD-students
Picture of humins
HUGS logo designed by Pierluigi Tosi