Catchbio lignin: catalysts for successful lignin conversion

Last year, Wageningen Food & Biobased Research and the University of Amsterdam jointly completed a major research project into new catalytic processes for the conversion of lignin. In 2014, the ‘Catchbio project’ was continued with even more wide-ranging cooperation between the universities of Utrecht, Eindhoven, Groningen, Amsterdam, and Wageningen. The objective is to research and further develop a range of catalysts and to selectively convert the promising biomass component ‘lignin’ into biobased chemicals.

The research, which took place between 2014 and 2016, received a subsidy from the Catchbio programme in the amount of €3.1 million. The objective of the project is to identify the most promising concept for the upgrading of lignin to valuable aromatics by comparing different catalytic routes. The requisite knowledge of these routes has already been acquired in the earlier Catchbio project.

Complete package of standards

In the project, lignin will be depolymerised to form a phenolic bio-oil that may then undergo hydrotreatment. At Wageningen Food & Biobased Research, the team will be working to further develop a technology without hydrogen treatment, thus building on the earlier project. The aim is also to pre-develop non-precious metal-based catalysts for this purpose. The objective of these comparisons is to learn how to steer the composition of products by choosing specific lignin sources and pre-treatment methods, catalysts, and reaction conditions. Some valuable chains (lignin to basic chemicals, BTX, alkylphenol, and fuels) are compared by means of a screening techno-economic analysis in order to identify the most promising valorisation routes for lignin. In addition, there will also be a more in-depth techno-economic study and lifecycle analysis to look at the potential of new versus existing aromatics and the key obstacles to the replacement of the current components for polymers with lignin molecules.

Broad knowledge network

Cooperation is central to this unique, multidisciplinary research project involving five Dutch universities, as well as ECN and contract research institution Wageningen Food & Biobased Research. The divergent knowledge institutions exchange analytical protocols, catalysts, and base products and work jointly towards the end goal – a comprehensive technical report that elaborates all process steps (catalysts, product yields, parameters), insights into lignin conversion mechanisms, and a techno-economic analysis. The final report will be developed as a practical guide for industry, which can incorporate lignin conversion into existing and new biorefinery processes.