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ORNL develops lignin-based thermoplastic conversion process

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have developed a process that ultimately transforms the lignin byproduct of the pulp and paper industry into a thermoplastic—a polymer that becomes pliable above a specific temperature. An open-access paper on the work is published in the journal Green Chemistry.

The team accomplished this by reconstructing larger lignin molecules either through a chemical reaction with formaldehyde or by washing with methanol. Through these simple chemical processes, they created a crosslinked rubber-like material that can also be processed like plastics.

Instead of using nearly 50 million tons of lignin byproduct produced annually as a low-cost fuel to power paper and pulp mills, the material can be transformed into a lignin-derived high-value plastic. While the lignin byproduct in raw form is worth just pennies a pound as a fuel, the value can potentially increase by a factor of 10 or more after the conversion.

Amit Naskar of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the leader of the project, noted that earlier work on lignin-based plastics utilized material that was available from pulping industries and was a significantly degraded version of native lignin contained in biomass. This decomposition occurs during harsh chemical treatment of biomass.

Here, however, we attempted to reconstruct larger lignin molecules by a simple crosslinking chemistry and then used it as a substitute for rigid phase in a formulation that behaves like crosslinked rubbers that can also be processed like plastics.

—Amit Naskar

Crosslinking involves building large lignin molecules by combining smaller molecules where formaldehyde helps to bridge the smaller units by chemical bonding. Naskar envisions the process leading to lower cost gaskets, window channels, irrigation hose, dashboards, car seat foam and a number of other plastic-like products.

A similar material can also be made from lignin produced in biorefineries.


  • Tomonori Saito, Rebecca H. Brown, Marcus A. Hunt, Deanna L. Pickel, Joseph M. Pickel, Jamie M. Messman, Frederick S. Baker, Martin Keller and Amit K. Naskar (2012) Turning renewable resources into value-added polymer: development of lignin-based thermoplastic. Green Chem., 14, 3295-3303 doi: 10.1039/C2GC35933B



With the switch to e-paper, e-books, e-magazines, e-news papers, e-plus-plus...the world will soon have a huge surplus of wood pulp, lignin and by-products.

Sustainable forest could be used as a source of raw material for multiple type of finished products to replace many fossil fuel derived finished products.


Given this and the newly-understood properties of microcrystalline cellulose, perhaps we can make a renewable, ultra-strong reinforced plastic:  Wood 2.0.  It might even be recyclable into new plastic.


"..the value can potentially increase by a factor of 10 or more after the conversion."

Use inexpensive natural gas for the heat and the lignin for the polymers, that makes sense and uses less imported oil.

I seriously doubt that iPads will have a major effect on paper production. There will be industrial growth of forest paper products for some time to come.


SJC: Where have you been the last 5 years? Paper mills are closing as newspapers and book publishers fade away -- because of the internet. iPads and iPhones are just accelerating the process.


Newspapers and the mills that make newsprint yes, but the total demise of the industry is an exaggeration. You still need TP right? Can't do that with an iPad :)


there is an app for that



I thought there might be:) Seriously, look at the shift. People do not buy newspapers, but they buy from Amazon, that is shipped in boxes. So the paper mill goes from newsprint to boxes.


If we can make cellulose-lignin thermoplastic boxes, the box material might be recyclable better than cardboard is today.  It might also be lighter, stronger and more resistant to damage from water.

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