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SmartLi Report Summary

Project ID: 668467
Funded under: H2020-EU.3.2.6.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - SmartLi (Smart Technologies for the Conversion of Industrial Lignins into Sustainable Materials)

Reporting period: 2015-07-01 to 2016-12-31

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

Today nearly all aromatic chemicals and building blocks originate from fossil sources, whereas lignin as a phenolic natural polymer could provide a valuable renewable aromatic resource for the chemical industry. he project aíms at adding value to the underexploited biomass side stream lignin, providing quality ensured homogeneous raw materials for manufactures and industrial end- users, lowering the need for oil based raw materials in the production of materials and chemicals and enhancing sustainable processing e.g. by reducing the GHG emissions. In SmartLi new technologies are developed for using technical lignins as raw materials for biomaterials and their industrial feasibility is demonstrated. The technical lignins included in the study are kraft lignins, lignosulphonates and bleaching effluents, representing all types of abundant lignin sources. The raw materials are obtained from industrial partners. The technical lignins are not directly applicable for the production of biomaterials with acceptable product specifications. Therefore, pretreatments will be developed to reduce their sulphur content and odour and provide constant quality. Thermal pretreatments are also expected to improve the material properties of lignin to be used as reinforcing filler in composites, while fractionating pretreatments will provide streams that will be tested as plasticizers. Lignin is expected to add value to composites also by improving their flame retardancy. The development of composite applications is led by an industrial partner. Base catalysed degradation will be studied as means to yield reactive oligomeric lignin fractions for resin applications. The degradation will be followed by downstream processing and potentially by further chemical modification aiming at a polyol replacement in PU resins. Also PF type resins for gluing and laminate impregnation, and epoxy resins will be among the target products. Full LCA, including a dynamic process, will support the study. The outcome of the research will be communicated with stakeholders related to legislation and standardisation.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

During the reporting period several protocols have been developed and tested with the aim to produce polymeric lignin and lignosulphonate fractions with improved and constant properties. Technologies based on solvent fractionation and membrane separation have turned out to be potential for this purpose. It has been confirmed that fractionation can be used as a means to recover a lignin fractions with equal properties from different starting lignin materials. This is the prerequisite for being able to provide lignin with constant quality to be used as raw material. All lignin fractions have been thoroughly characterized. Selected pretreatments have been up-scaled for the needs of industrial scale application testing.

Base catalyzed depolymerisation of both Kraft lignin and lignosulphonates in a lab scale plug flow reactor has been systematically studied. Product fractions of membrane separation trials have been analyzed in terms of yield, composition and structural features. Optimal process conditions for generation of BCD-Oil and BCD-Oligomers were determined and the molecular features of both product fractions proved to be adjustable. Cross-flow membrane filtration, more specifically nanofiltration, has been studied as a means to fractionate BCD fragments in a non-thermal manner. The trials indicated that oligomers can be efficiently separated from monomers/dimers, from BCD reactor water as well as from solvent borne solutions of the tar obtained in the current downstream process. Selected BCD and membrane separation processes have been scaled up.

In the project the usability of lignins and their fractions are assessed in four areas of industrial applications: 1) Thermoplastic compounds; 2) Phenolic resins; 3) Polyurethane foams and 4) Epoxy composites and coatings. The experimental activities carried out so far allowed to demonstrate the antioxidative properties of lignin and lignin fractions and their processability on a pre-industrial scale in several thermoplastic polymers. Study of the replacement (up to 70%) of phenol with lignin and lignin fractions in the synthesis of phenol-formaldehyde resins, understanding the reactions’ mechanisms through advanced analytical techniques and assessing the resins’ properties in comparison with benchmark industrial recipes has been carried out. Chemically modify kraft lignin has been studied with the aim to increase its aliphatic hydroxyl groups content and formulate lignin-based rigid and flexible PU foams, which gave some good preliminary results in terms of fire performances. A preliminary study the performances of epoxy systems based on lignins and lignin fractions in epoxy formulations has been carried out.

Achieving resource efficiency is one of the central objectives on the way toward the fulfilment of future bio-economy. The early implementation of sustainability assessment and respective indicators is a prerequisite to foster the effectiveness of innovation processes towards an efficient resource use right from the beginning. In order to systematically consider the environmental aspects a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and techno-economic analyses are carried out for the newly developed lignin based products as well as the new technologies. These analyses aim at the identification of barriers and incentives that have an influence on the successful market penetration. The implementation of economic and ecological assessment already during an early research stage may be the key to successfully develop sustainable processes and products.

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

This project aims to bring new bio-based products to markets. The technologies to be developed can be integrated in the current industrial landscape when producing biomass based products and intermediates and building blocks to the existing industries and value chains. The project will identify and target market niches for lignin-based products and provides a strategy for market penetration. SmartLi will develop applications for technical lignins which are presently not valorized due to their limited availability or performance as such. The technologies to be developed will enable improvement of the raw material quality and especially constant quality, which leads to their easier use in valorisation processes and significantly facilitates the up-take into markets, As a resultt, several industries are impacted. The chemicals and materials have applications in a wide range of material uses in the industries and finally at the consumers. The impact combines sustainability of the renewable materials and the competitive edge of the end use sectors in question. The project provides lignin based products, which in some cases are even safer alternatives for the products currently on the markets. New market opportunities are created, which secure employment particularly in the product development and engineering. 'the project facilitates also the renewal and competitiveness of pulp and paper industry through production of renewable raw material, i.e. lignin, for the needs of chemical industry and material producers.
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