EU Project Aimed at Converting Waste into Sustainable Chemical Compounds

The techniques for manufacturing sustainable chemicals from lignin are further expanded by the Electrosynthesis group at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). The research lab, headed by Professor Siegfried Waldvogel at the JGU Institute of Organic Chemistry, is managing a partnership consortium of institutes of higher education and businesses.

A researcher working on an electrochemical flow reactor. (Image credit: Alexander Sell)

The SElectiveLI project was initiated by the EU and an industrial consortium and is being financed through the Bio-based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBI JU) Public-Private Partnership. In the next three years, EUR 2.9 million will be granted to achieve an ambitious goal.

The goal of Waldvogel’s team is to demonstrate how lignosulfonate, a waste product of the paper and pulp sector, can be used to create beneficial “green” compounds. To execute this complex process, it will first be necessary to conduct a feasibility study on a laboratory scale. The team will be working alongside many European partners in this project.

Electrochemistry applies electric current to boost chemical reactions directly. This approach curtails the use of valuable and finite resources for catalysts and reagents that would otherwise be essential to facilitate such reactions. An additional advantage is the fact that it is also possible to use extra electric energy for electrochemical applications produced from renewable sources.

Lignin as a Source of Chemicals for the Production of Carbon-Neutral Plastics

In SElectiveLI, electrochemistry serves in different applications, including the conversion of lignin into beneficial chemicals. Paper production produces a significant amount of the bio-adhesive lignin as a by-product: 50 million tons every year.

So far, the tough chemical properties of this novel bio-derived structure lead to its core use as combustible material to produce thermal energy. However, lignin is packed with simple compounds that are envisioned for use in the production of carbon-neutral plastics, vanillin, adhesives, and other major commodity chemicals.

The project’s other aim is to simplify the complex process needed for the split-up of the target compounds from the reaction mixture obtained from the electrochemical process.

We hope to develop an inexpensive way of producing green chemicals and, if possible, make the use bisphenol A obsolete in the future. This also involves investigating processes that make the use of renewable energy as a power source for electrochemistry feasible. In addition, we will exploit a source of renewable material that will not be competing with food production.

Siegfried Waldvogel, Professor, JGU Institute of Organic Chemistry

Moreover, the scientists intend to show the prospect of decreasing possible negative environmental effects resulting from the industrial process. Rendering these processes as eco-friendly as possible, the extraction of beneficial compounds is enhanced by decreasing the water consumption and by employing non-toxic materials to drive reactions.

The researchers led by Professor Siegfried Waldvogel have already received EU funding in 2018 for a project put together to investigate the potential for the utilization of substitute lignin product flows. With regards to the more recent project, the group is part of an international consortium that envisions the construction of an electrochemical plant to explore the opportunities for the commercial manipulation of chemical compounds obtained from lignosulfonates.


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