A team of scientists at Swiss research institution École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have found a way to turn the biomass waste polymer – lignin – into a source of biofuel.
By adding formaldehyde to the lignin ‘waste’, which is described as a “nuisance”, the scientists claim to be able to convert up to 80% of it into valuable molecules for biofuel and plastics.
The method for doing this can also be scaled up to industrial levels, the EPFL team said.
The chemistry is relatively straightforward; the real challenge is actually finding investors for a pilot facility to demonstrate this
Lead researcher Jeremy Luterbacher
Lignin is an enormously complex biopolymer, filling the hard wall that surrounds each plant cell, the researchers said.
However, through the addition of formaldehyde, the lignin is stabilised, preventing it from degrading, which leads to high yields of building blocks that can be used to make substitutes for petrochemicals.
In discussing the potential to scale up the process, researcher Jeremy Luterbacher said: “Depending on the wood used we get between 50 and 80%.
“The chemistry is relatively straightforward; the real challenge is actually finding investors for a pilot facility to demonstrate this.”
However, he said Switzerland was “a great place” to move forward with the project.
A full account of the research has been published in the journal Science.