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Converting lignin into high value products

Bio-polymeric materials, e.g. cellulose and lignin, have the potential to provide functionalised building blocks for both existing and novel chemical products. Our long term aim is to provide novel and economically viable processes for the conversion of lignin into high value-added products. Lignin is the most abundant renewable source of aromatic compounds, comprising up to 30% of the carbon in plant biomass, but its complex, non-homogeneous polymeric structure is a major barrier to its utilization as a chemical feedstock.

A representative structure for lignin is shown below:

 

Most attempts to convert lignin to high value products innvolve quite robust conditions. Two typical examples are shown below:

 

This "sledgehammer" approach provides little control over the product distribution.

To overcome these limitations, our approach is to try to understand the depolymerisation chemistry involved in breaking down the original lignin structure. To do this we make model compounds that contain the main linkages, such as the ether linkages (-O-) found in lignin and then investigate their chemical properties.


Examples of model compounds are given below: