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Lignin, nature’s dominant aromatic polymer, is found in most terrestrial plants in the approximate range of 15 to 40% dry weight and provides structural integrity. Traditionally, most large-scale industrial processes that use plant polysaccharides have burned lignin to generate the power needed to productively transform biomass. The advent of biorefineries that convert cellulosic biomass into liquid transportation fuels will generate substantially more lignin than necessary to power the operation, and therefore efforts are underway to transform it to value-added products.
Bioengineering to modify lignin structure and/or incorporate atypical components has shown promise toward facilitating recovery and chemical transformation of lignin under biorefinery conditions. The flexibility in lignin monomer composition has proven useful for enhancing extraction efficiency. Both the mining of genetic variants in native populations of bioenergy crops and direct genetic manipulation of biosynthesis pathways have produced lignin feedstocks with unique properties for coproduct development. Advances in analytical chemistry and computational modeling detail the structure of the modified lignin and direct bioengineering strategies for targeted properties. Refinement of biomass pretreatment technologies has further facilitated lignin recovery and enables catalytic modifications for desired chemical and physical properties.
Potential high-value products from isolated lignin include low-cost carbon fiber, engineering plastics and thermoplastic elastomers, polymeric foams and membranes, and a variety of fuels and chemicals all currently sourced from petroleum. These lignin coproducts must be low cost and perform as well as petroleum-derived counterparts. Each product stream has its own distinct challenges. Development of renewable lignin-based polymers requires improved processing technologies coupled to tailored bioenergy crops incorporating lignin with the desired chemical and physical properties. For fuels and chemicals, multiple strategies have emerged for lignin depolymerization and upgrading, including thermochemical treatments and homogeneous and heterogeneous catalysis. The multifunctional nature of lignin has historically yielded multiple product streams, which require extensive separation and purification procedures, but engineering plant feedstocks for greater structural homogeneity and tailored functionality reduces this challenge.
The Lignin Landscape
Lignin is a chemically complex polymer that lends woody plants and trees their rigidity. Humans have traditionally either left it intact to lend rigidity to their own wooden constructs, or burned it to generate heat and sometimes power. With the advent of major biorefining operations to convert cellulosic biomass into ethanol and other liquid fuels, researchers are now exploring how to transform the associated leftover lignin into more diverse and valuable products. Ragauskas et al. (10.1126/science.1246843) review recent developments in this area, ranging from genetic engineering approaches that tune lignin properties at the source, to chemical processing techniques directed toward extracting lignin in the biorefinery and transforming it into high-performance plastics and a variety of bulk and fine chemicals.
Research and development activities directed toward commercial production of cellulosic ethanol have created the opportunity to dramatically increase the transformation of lignin to value-added products. Here, we highlight recent advances in this lignin valorization effort. Discovery of genetic variants in native populations of bioenergy crops and direct manipulation of biosynthesis pathways have produced lignin feedstocks with favorable properties for recovery and downstream conversion. Advances in analytical chemistry and computational modeling detail the structure of the modified lignin and direct bioengineering strategies for future targeted properties. Refinement of biomass pretreatment technologies has further facilitated lignin recovery, and this coupled with genetic engineering will enable new uses for this biopolymer, including low-cost carbon fibers, engineered plastics and thermoplastic elastomers, polymeric foams, fungible fuels, and commodity chemicals.