Lignocellulosic materials, sustainable alternative for the industry of the future
Circular and eco-sustainable economy is the new economic model of mandatory application, not only because of the need to take care of an increasingly resentful planet with human action and with the enormous amount of waste we produce. Also for all the possibilities it offers for the industrial sector in need of new innovative alternatives to fossil resources.
According to the “European Bioeconomy in Figures” report  prepared by Bio-based Industries Consortium, the total turnover of the Bioeconomy in Europe amounts to 2.1 billion euros, with 600,000 million euros corresponding to the Bio- Industries Based. These therefore represent a fundamental pillar of the European economy, with a high growth perspective and constitute a fundamental element in the transition towards a sustainable circular economy in Europe with renewable raw materials as a key factor.
Five years ago, from CETIM, we opted to open a line of research in lignocellulosic materials, focused on the valorization of lignin and cellulose as eco-sustainable materials with high added value. New applications for industry and as diverse as polyurethane foams for seats in the automotive sector, cleaning products, insulating panels for construction, pipe additives, stabilizers for forest soils or sustainable asphalt mixtures in a long list of projects I + D that since 2015 have swelled our R&D portfolio, with very satisfactory results and the same common denominator: sustainable and circular economy.
Cellulose, the most abundant polymer in nature as a sustainable industrial alternative
Cellulose, the most abundant biomolecule in the natural environment, is a fundamental material for the manufacture of all types of paper and cardboard products. It is therefore a raw material with established industrial applications, and a growing business (with an increase in projected global demand of 12% until 2024).
With the objective of favoring its implementation in other industrial sectors as an eco-sustainable material and increasing its market price as a raw material with high added value, CETIM investigated the obtaining and application of micro and nanocellulose in multiple sectors. We take advantage not only of its advantages as a natural resource – renewable, biodegradable and biocompatible – but also its physical and chemical properties – high strength, high thermal stability, lightness, optical transparency, dimensional stability, high water retention capacity, high surface area, etc. Through mechanical, chemical and biochemical processes, from CETIM we obtain, process and modify the nanocellulose in different morphologies, such as nanocrystals and nanofibers.
CETIM researchers operating a pilot homogenizer in our headquarters.
In our research we also focus on the use of nanocellulose in markets that are in demand. The following are outstanding examples: the formulation of plastic compounds that improve the mechanical and barrier properties, as well as their evaluation as a potential substrate (nanocellulose food films); the development of special, hydrophobic, low weight papers; coatings for automotive textiles and polyurethane foams that improve structural and mechanical integrity, as well as thermal and acoustic properties; new composites for pipes, of marked environmental character and improved barrier, physical and mechanical properties; or new cold asphalt mixtures with micro and nanocellulose as dispersing agents. Thus, the multisectoral and technological knowledge of our Center allows the use of cellulose to be diversified by obtaining viable nanocellulose in applications with high added value in a wide variety of industrial sectors. In the words of Antonio Casal, ENCE Development Director, the ” CETIM’s multisectoral vision allows us to focus our developments on new markets and sectors”.
With these investigations, CETIM positions its clients in a market – the nanocellulose – that will move 530 million dollars in 2021 and has a compound annual growth rate of 30% .
Lignin, basic component of wood as a sustainable precursor of advanced materials
Lignin is a complex organic polymer, the second most abundant in nature. Responsible among others for giving hardness to the woody trunk, it supposes between a quarter and a third of the weight of the wood. In the paper industry, the wood is subjected to chemical and thermal processing (pulping) to obtain cellulose – the target product -, resulting in a byproduct – called “black liquor” for its appearance – rich in lignin.
Traditionally, lignin has been considered as a material of low quality and low added value due to its polymeric complexity. In 2010, the pulp and paper industry produced approximately 50 million tons of lignin, of which only 2% was used commercially for added-value applications. It is now when the industry is beginning to discover the potential of lignin – even considering that it can become the main aromatic resource of the industrial chemistry of the future. The identification from CETIM of the market potential that lignin offered to its customers as a product of secondary sources beyond its use as fuel opened a field of potential industrial applications that we investigated in our laboratories. Outstanding examples of these investigations are: chemical modification of lignin to obtain the polyols necessary for the manufacture of polyurethane foams and adhesives; obtaining plasticizer and superplasticizer additives for the construction sector; polymer matrix-lignin compounds with improved mechanical and thermal properties; or formulations of hydro and oleophobic textile additives.
CETIM researchers manipulating lignin in the laboratory.
With these investigations, we position our clients in a market – chemical products based on biochemistry – that will reach in the coming years a production market share of 9% with a global market of 1.7 million tons , and that It will be a boost to the sustainable and ecological industry of the future.
Investment and equipment
Application of CETIM’s team expertise would not be possible without the investment effort by the Centre to convert its headquarters into a leading R&D Centre. In 2018, CETIM has been equipped with the latest technological equipment and increased its R&D facilities, with an investment of over half a million euros. Various scientific-technological equipment – co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund through the Galician Innovation Agency – equipment such as laboratory and pilot homogenizers for obtaining micro and nanocellulose and encapsulation, lyophilizer and pilot spray dryer for the production of particles and encapsulates, among others – that increase our research capacity, allowing us to offer our clients and collaborators, greater capacities and services.
In all cases, these are lines of applied research launched with national and international tractor companies in sectors as diverse as the industrialized products listed. Client companies such as ENCE, COPO Group, CUPA, ABN Pipe Group, Extraco, UBE, ADI Group, Miquel y Costas, Arteixo Química, Canarga, FINSA, Técnicas Reunidas, BASF, Cromogenia and a long list of companies make the Centre’s investigations possible and its application in industry.
 European Bioeconomy in Figures; http://biconsortium.eu/sites/biconsortium.eu/files/news-image/16-03-02-Bioeconomy-in-figures.pdf
 “The Global Market for Cellulose Nanofibers / NanoFibrillar Cellulose” report published by Future Markets, Inc., February 2017
 High-value opportunities for lignin ”. Frost & Sullivan