LEXINGTON, Ky., (Nov. 18, 2016) — Lignin is a byproduct of the biofuels, pulp and paper, and sugarcane industries. It has a pretty low value on its own, but researchers at the University of Kentucky and Louisiana State University are collaborating on ways to add value to it. The two schools recently announced they are joint recipients of a $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create a new class of materials from lignin.
“We want to understand the chemistry of lignin better,” said Sue Nokes, chair of the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment’s Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering. “Lignin is the woody part of plants. There’s been a lot of research on the sugary part of plants related to biomass for energy, but lignin has been sort of ignored. We want to know what we can do with this material.”
Nokes said so far most of the products from lignin have been low value items such as prefabricated building materials, but her team wants to explore products with higher value.
One of the problems lignin has is in the way it breaks down, so the team will work to understand the deconstruction process in two main ways. One team will work from the top down and deconstruct natural lignin to its base molecules, while another team will work from the bottom up and create synthetic lignin.
“When you deconstruct lignin, it can end up in lots of different configurations, because it’s a complex structure,” Nokes said. “We want to develop techniques to find out why lignin deconstructs the way it does. If we build it, we know exactly what’s in it, and then when we deconstruct it, we know what we should be getting.”
The four-year collaboration will also aim for a broader impact of creating resources for educators to engage rural youth in science.
“We want to get agricultural kids interested in science,” Nokes explained. “We’ll use these materials to teach them the underlying chemistry. Hopefully, they will be more interested than if we presented just the chemistry. We hope to get a module developed that will allow the educators a way to use it in their classrooms.”
The UK team consists of Nokes, Jian Shi from UK Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, Steve Rankin and Barbara Knutson from the UK Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering and Bert Lynn from the UK Department of Chemistry.