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Science Leaps Towards Greener Future with Lignin Technology

It seems as though everything science does nowadays has something to do with creating an eco-friendly environment ever since evidence of rapid earth decay became more and more obvious. In an effort to halt global warming, the death of animal species, the melting of the solar ice caps and other calamities, scientists are working towards the creation of sustainable products and energy.

Today, possibly the best news we’ve got is the conversion of lignin into a promising source of clean energy.

What is Lignin?

Lignin is technically viewed as a waste product, often occurring during a paper manufacturing process. It comes from trees and is the component that provides the strength of plants on their trunks and branches. At the end of the paper process, lignin is typically burned down as a source of fuel, but the micro-chemical components of the substance are what make it so valuable.

A green chemistry specialist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Shannon Stahl further expounds the value of lignin in the fight for a greener environment. According to Stahl, the substance contains aromatics, defined as carbon rings that can be used to make practically anything from plastic to pesticides.

So if it can be made into plastic, what use would it be to the environment? The fact is that although plastic is considered “bad”, plastic made from lignin is different. For one thing, lignin from plants makes it a renewable and organic source compared to traditional plastics often made from petroleum-based aromatics.

Overcoming Drawbacks

The main problem with lignin is the fact that it can be tough against processing. Unlike petroleum which easily gives access to its aromatics, lignin requires a more strenuous system to separate the different rings. Not only that, but the original process isn’t exactly cost-efficient as determined by Stahl and her colleagues.

After considerable research, however, it seems as though the group of scientists have finally hit upon a solution. Using a combination of oxygen exposure and chemicals, they have managed to break down the tough rings and get to the most basic components of lignin: the aromatics. Stahl also noted that this method provides them with the highest yield of aromatics, making the process well worth the investment.

Not the End

The headways made with lignin are still in its infant state, but scientists aren’t losing hope. It might take a few more years, but progress in science is exponential – which means that we may be looking at lignin-fueled power within the next 10 years or so. According to the experts, the aromatics they have yielded today is a promising start, but further manipulation is needed to make it industry ready. As of now, Stahl and her colleagues have a good grasp on what chemicals work and what don’t when it comes to lignin, making it easier for them to proceed.

Eventually, the goal is to create a cost-effective system that replaces petroleum as the main source of aromatics, exchanging it for the “greener” option of lignin. Dubbed as future “biorefineries,” this is just the first step to what would hopefully be a greener form of life.

 

Image credit: Wikipedia (German page on lignin)

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