What is Lignin?

Lignin is a Complex Molecule

lignin molecule

        Lignin is a ubiquitous polymer made by all living plants, second only to cellulose in quantity made each year on planet Earth. Lignin is nature's major source of aromatic chemistry, which today is only provided by petrochemistry. Lignin can be recovered from papermaking operations, which currently burn most of their lignin to generate steam and electricity. Also, lignin can be recovered from the emerging cellulosic ethanol facilities which will have lignin as a byproduct stream.

Chemical and Engineering News:

Lignin's Time Has Come.

Lignin Applications

Phenol Replacement for (PF) Resins

Lignin can replace up to 50% of the phenol in PF thermoset resins while maintaining the requisite strength properties of the systems in which they are used. Typical applications are adhesives for composite wood systems such as OSB and paper-based laminates.

Polyol Replacement in Polyurethanes (PU)

Lignin can replace up to 20% of the polyol in polyurethanes and is especially useful in PU foams where stiffness is desirable. A typical application is PU foams for insulation where the increased modulus is a positive attribute. Some early adaptors have observed an increase in flame resistance in their rigid foams due to the intumescent property of lignin.


Lignin can be sulfonated to produce effective dispersants. Unlike lignosulfonates that are byproducts of sulfite pulping processes which have high degree of sulfonation, lignin can be sulfonated at targeted levels to produce specific properties. Typical applications are dispersants for textile dyes and agricultural pesticides.

Functional Fillers in Polymers

Lignin can be chemically modified to be more compatible with polymers. C12XL, a start-up company, combines modified lignin at high levels within special polyester to make compostable garbage bags.

High-Purity Lignin in Polymers.

Lignin can be purified so that the inorganic ash content is less than 100 ppm. At these purity levels, lignin can be incorporated into the polymeric backbone using the functionality within the lignin molecules.

Adsorption and Absorption Functionality

Solid lignin powder has the capability of serving as a slow-release agent for fertilizers and pesticides for agriculture agricultural applications. Also lignin can adsorb odorous components and absorb oil from oil-in-water dispersions.

Precursor for Carbon Fibers.

Decades of research within DOE has demonstrated that lignin can be spun into fibers then converted to carbon fibers. Achieving high strength is a major challenge. Automotive and textile applications are near-term targets.

Precursor for Liquid Fuels.

Lignin can be de-polymerized and de-oxygenated so that it can be converted to diesel gasoline in a petroleum refinery and gasoline. Scandinavian companies are leading the development of these lignin-based liquid transportation fuels.

Binder for Wood Pellets

Lignin is a natural binder for wood-based energy pellets that can decrease dust, improve lubricity in extruders, and enhance the fuel value since dry lignin has a heat value of 21 MJ/kg, about 10% higher than dry wood.

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