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ORNL team develops better moldable thermoplastic by using lignin; 50% renewable content

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have developed a new class of high-performance thermoplastic elastomers for cars and other consumer products by replacing the styrene in ABS (acrylonitrile, butadiene and styrene) with lignin, a brittle, rigid polymer that, with cellulose, forms the woody cell walls of plants.

In doing so, they have invented a solvent-free production process that interconnects equal parts of nanoscale lignin dispersed in a synthetic rubber matrix to produce a meltable, moldable, ductile material that’s at least ten times tougher than ABS. The resulting thermoplastic—called ABL for acrylonitrile, butadiene, lignin—is recyclable, as it can be melted three times and still perform well. The results, published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, may bring cleaner, cheaper raw materials to diverse manufacturers.

Equal parts lignin and synthetic nitrile rubber are heated, mixed and extruded to yield a superior thermoplastic for cars and other consumer products. Image credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy; schematic by Mark Robbins Click to enlarge.

Most currently available thermoplastic elastomeric materials consist primarily of styrenic or other crystalline hard phases, but thermoplastic elastomers with greater stiffness would find immediate use if they were based on low-cost renewables. The common bio-based thermoplastic elastomers have low softening points, and most of these elastomers require expensive polyesters or polyamides that have poor hydrolytic stability, which limits their end uses. Hydrothermally stable, higher performance thermoplastic materials made of renewable polymer hard segments bridged with soft segments will offer a great solution for renewable thermoplastic elastomers.

—Tran et al.

The ORNL team created the new thermoplastic elastomers has been created by introducing nanoscale-dispersed lignin (a biomass-derived phenolic oligomer) into nitrile rubber. They used temperature to control the miscibility between the lignin and the rubber, which enabled tuning the material’s morphology and performance.

The sustainable product has unprecedented yield stress (15–45 MPa), strain hardens at large deformation, and has outstanding recyclability.

The new ORNL thermoplastic has better performance than commodity plastics like ABS. We can call it a green product because 50 percent of its content is renewable, and technology to enable its commercial exploitation would reduce the need for petrochemicals.

—senior author Amit Naskar

Naskar and co-inventor Chau Tran have filed a patent application for the process to make the new material.

The technology could make use of the lignin-rich biomass byproduct stream from biorefineries and pulp and paper mills. With the prices of natural gas and oil dropping, renewable fuels can’t compete with fossil fuels, so biorefineries are exploring options for developing other economically viable products. Among cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin, the major structural constituents of plants, lignin is the most commercially underutilized. The ORNL study aimed to use it to produce, with an eye toward commercialization, a renewable thermoplastic with properties rivaling those of current petroleum-derived alternatives.

Broadly, the researchers noted, solutions that link the biorefinery and pulping industries face four challenges:

  1. variation in lignin feedstock consistency;
  2. ability to control lignin self-assembly in soft polymer matrices;
  3. understanding the chemistry and physics of lignin-derived polymers; and
  4. appropriate process engineering.

Lignin is a very brittle natural polymer, so it needs to be toughened. We need to chemically combine soft matter with lignin. That soft matrix would be ductile so that it can be malleable or stretchable. Very rigid lignin segments would offer resistance to deformation and thus provide stiffness.

—Amit Naskar

All lignins are not equal in terms of heat stability. To determine what type would make the best thermoplastic feedstock, the scientists evaluated lignin from wheat straw, softwoods like pine and hardwoods like oak. They found hardwood lignin is the most thermally stable, and some types of softwood lignins are also melt-stable.

Next, the researchers needed to couple the lignin with soft matter. Chemists typically accomplish this by synthesizing polymers in the presence of solvents. Because lignin and a synthetic rubber containing acrylonitrile and butadiene, called nitrile rubber, both have chemical groups in which electrons are unequally distributed and therefore likely to interact, Naskar and Chau Tran (who performed melt-mixing and characterization experiments) instead tried to couple the two in a melted phase without solvents.

In a heated chamber with two rotors, the researchers “kneaded” a molten mix of equal parts powdered lignin and nitrile rubber. During mixing, lignin agglomerates broke into interpenetrating layers or sheets of 10 to 200 nanometers that dispersed well in and interacted with the rubber. Without the proper selection of a soft matrix and mixing conditions, lignin agglomerates are at least 10 times larger than those obtained with the ORNL process. The product that formed had properties of neither lignin nor rubber, but something in between, with a combination of lignin’s stiffness and nitrile rubber’s elasticity.

By altering the acrylonitrile amounts in the soft matrix, the researchers hoped to improve the material’s mechanical properties further. They tried 33%, 41% and 51% acrylonitrile and found 41% gave an optimal balance between toughness and stiffness.

Next, the researchers wanted to find out if controlling the processing conditions could improve the performance of their polymer alloy. For example, 33% acrylonitrile content produced a material that was stretchy but not strong, behaving more like rubber than plastic. At higher proportions of acrylonitrile, the researchers saw the materials strengthen because of the efficient interaction between the components. They also wanted to know at what temperature the components should be mixed to optimize the material properties. They found heating components between 140 and 160 degrees Celsius formed the desired hybrid phase.

Using resources at ORNL including the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, a DOE Office of Science User Facility, the scientists analyzed the morphologies of the blends. Scanning electron microscopy, performed by Chau Tran, explored the surfaces of the materials. Jihua Chen and Tran characterized soft matter phases using transmission electron microscopy, placing a thin slice of material in the path of an electron beam to reveal structure through contrast differences in the lignin and rubber phases. Small-angle x-ray scattering by Jong Keum revealed repeated clusters of certain domain or layer sizes. Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy identified chemical functional groups and their interactions.

Future studies will explore different feedstocks, particularly those from biorefineries, and correlations among processing conditions, material structure and performance. Investigations are also planned to study the performance of ORNL’s new thermoplastic in carbon-fiber-reinforced composites.

ORNL’s Technology Innovation Program, which reinvests royalties from the lab’s patents in innovative, commercially promising projects, sponsored the study. The researchers conducted polymer characterization experiments (microscopy and X-ray scattering) at the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, a DOE Office of Science User Facility at ORNL.


  • Chau D. Tran, Jihua Chen, Jong K. Keum and Amit K. Naskar (2016) “A New Class of Renewable Thermoplastics with Extraordinary Performance from Nanostructured Lignin-Elastomers” Advanced Functional Materials doi: 10.1002/adfm.201504990


Jens Stubbe

The current oil prices could be permanent so bio based fuels clearly needs additional revenue streams and what could be better than recycling a waste product as a high quality polymer.

I hope this new plastic gains momentum and that it supports the usage of biomass for fuel.

Another interesting opportunity is to tap into the wasted CO2 from processing biomass, which can be turned into Methanol or Methane by use of excess renewable electricity. These Synfuels are usable for all kinds of petrochemical process products as well as for propulsion and peak power plants.

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