Wood based lignin can be replace oil based materials in manufacturing
Commercial production of lignin powder begun in Finland in the beginning of 2018. The company behind the Lineo product believes the wood product could find applications everywhere from solar panels to airospace. As a result we may even see the return of wooden airplanes.
Lignin is one of the most important elements in wood. From the total weight of trees some 20-30 percent are lignin, but up until now the pulp and paper industry has not harvested the material at scale for commercial use. Stora Enso, one of Finland's reviving forestry cluster companies believes the sustainable material could replace traditional alternatives at scale.
The Sunila factory in Kotka is the first known factory that is producing dried lignin power to the chemical industry. This is a result of research that lead to a technique that allows safe separation and refinement of lignin from wood. At Sunila raw lignin is separated from pine pulp byproduct black lye and then dried and packaged for storage and distribution.
The factory has produced raw lignin at scale from 2015, and the maximum capacity is some 50,000 tonnes of kraft lignin a year - making the company the largest producer of the stuff in globally. From this raw material the company has now introduced Lineo, a lignin refinement to replace oil based phenols in the chemical production industry processes.
Lignin is a class of complex organic polymers that form structural materials in plants and some algae. It is attractive to industrial companies who don't wish to use oil based materials.
Lignin usable in airplanes, household chemicals…
Research continues and the company believes there's plenty of more use for lignin in a number of areas of manufacturing. According to Markus Mannström, an executive in the bio materials business in the company believes that lignin based products can completely replace fossil materials in many the production of a wide range of products.
In the future Finnish wood can be used to build car chassis, solar panels and wind mill wings. The dry lignin powder can also be used as material for producing carbon fibre in the aerospace industry. Use of carbon fibre is on the rise in aircraft production, with Boeing already extensively using it in it's 787 Dreamliner and Airbus having started production of A350 XWB wings made from carbon fibre.
What makes lignin production production challenging is that it's tendency to explode. Compared to wood dust the tendency of lignin powder to explode is twice as high. For safety reasons lignin is handled in an oxygen free environment, and measures to minimise static electricity are in place. The lignin separation gear was bought from Valmet, a Finnish provider of pulp, paper and energy gear for industries.
Lignin demand driven by sustainability awareness
The properties of lignin have been known for a long time, and glue based on it were introduced in the 1970s, but they did not succeed in the market. The demand for environmentally sustainable products reignited the industry's interest in sustainable lignin.
In Finland there is no shortage of raw material, with an esimated total of 3 Trillion trees in the country, of which 20-30 percent is lignin. There are currently global lignin producing factories in the world, the Sunila plant in Finland, two in the United States and one in Canada.
Currently the Finnish plant is the only one producing dry lignin powder, where as the other three are producing wet lignin which is more challenging to store and transport. This enables practical applications for the Lineo product in paint and glue production, for example.
Lignin is just one of many bioproduce projects going on in Finland as the forestry companies diversify production from paper and pulp to renewable materials such as MicroFibrillated Celluloce (MFC). Ultimately the demand for these materials is driven by consumer demand of environmentally friendly products.
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