Lignin, the second most abundant natural polymer, is a complex and recalcitrant material integral to the structure of plant cell walls. Accounting for 20-35 wt% of lignocellulosic biomass, it is a rich source of aromatic compounds. Despite its abundance and potential, lignin’s heterogeneous and complex structure has historically challenged its effective utilization, particularly in the production of high-value chemicals. The primary challenge in lignin valorization lies in its depolymerization into monomers, which can be used as renewable alternatives to petroleum-based chemicals. Lignin is a three-dimensional network of phenolic units connected by various types of chemical bonds, including ether and carbon-carbon bonds. The efficiency of lignin depolymerization is greatly influenced by the type of these linkages, which vary significantly between hardwood and softwood lignins. For instance, softwood lignin is predominantly composed of guaiacyl units linked by stable condensed bonds, posing a significant challenge to its breakdown.
In a new study led by Dr. Jiaqi Wang, Professor. Eiji Minami, and led by Professor Haruo Kawamoto at Kyoto University’s Department of Socio-Environmental Energy Science developed a novel method for the depolymerization of lignin, a major component of lignocellulosic biomass. Their research, implemented a novel method combining catalytic hydrogenolysis with pyrolysis. This approach involves the degradation of lignin at high temperatures (250-350 °C) in the presence of a palladium on carbon (Pd/C) catalyst and anisole solvent. This method is particularly effective in breaking down softwood lignin, which is typically more resistant to chemical processing compared to hardwood lignin
The study reveals that the yield and type of monomers produced are highly dependent on the reaction temperature. At lower temperatures (around 200 °C), the dominant product is dihydroconiferyl alcohol. As the temperature increases, the yield shifts towards compounds such as ethyl guaiacol and guaiacol, suggesting a transformation in the lignin degradation pathways. The authors found that incorporation of Pd/C as a catalyst play a crucial role in facilitating the breakdown of lignin into monomers. The catalyst aids in the cleavage of both ether and carbon-carbon bonds within the lignin structure, enhancing the efficiency of the depolymerization process.
Pyrolysis, or the thermal decomposition of organic material, contributes significantly to the breakdown of lignin. The researchers demonstrated that lignin undergoes substantial degradation within the high-temperature range, forming soluble oligomers and monomers that can be further converted under catalytic conditions. Moreover, while the addition of hydrogen (H2) was less critical than the presence of the catalyst, its inclusion further improved the depolymerization process. Hydrogen assists in hydrogenating side-chain double bonds and promotes the formation of reactive hydrogen species, crucial for the conversion of lignin-derived oligomers into monomers. The team also explored the effectiveness of the new method on milled wood lignin (MWL) and organosolv lignin from Japanese cedar. Their results indicate a high yield of monomers, particularly from organosolv lignin, which contains a significant proportion of α-aryl bonds formed during the pulping process.
The method developed by Professor Haruo Kawamoto and his team represents a significant advancement in lignin chemistry and its potential for industrial application. By enabling the efficient conversion of lignin into valuable monomers, this research paves the way for the sustainable production of aromatic chemicals, currently sourced primarily from petroleum. For example, lignin can be converted into various biochemicals and biofuels. This includes converting lignin into bio-oil through pyrolysis, which can further be refined into fuels or chemicals. The lignin-derived monomers can be used as precursors for bio-based polymers. These polymers can be employed in making composites, plastics, and other high-value materials. For instance, lignin can be used to make phenolic resins, which are widely used in adhesives and insulation materials. Furthermore, specific monomers obtained from lignin conversion have applications in the pharmaceutical industry Indeed, the conversion of lignin into valuable monomers is a key area of research in green chemistry and sustainable materials science, aiming to make the most out of this abundant natural resource while reducing environmental impact. The newly developed method offers an environmentally friendly alternative, contributing to the circular economy and reducing reliance on fossil fuels. The scalability of this process and its integration into existing biorefinery systems present exciting opportunities for future research. Additionally, understanding the environmental impact, particularly in terms of energy consumption and emissions associated with the high-temperature process, is crucial for its sustainable application.
Jiaqi Wang, Eiji Minami and Haruo Kawamoto. Pyrolysis-assisted catalytic hydrogenolysis of softwood lignin at elevated temperatures for the high yield production of monomers. Green Chem., 2023, 25, 2583–2595.