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Addressing markets worth more than US$130bn, lignin could become the main renewable aromatic resource for the chemical industry in the future. The first opportunity could emerge as early as 2015 from the direct substitution of phenol in most of its industrial applications: phenolic resins, surfactants, epoxy resins, adhesives or polyester.
"The industry is just beginning to scratch the surface of lignin’s potential,” explained Frost & Sullivan consultant, Nicolas Smolarski: "It is the only renewable source for industrial aromatics production and is de-correlated from the fluctuating price of oil.”
Lignin represents 30% of all the non-fossil organic carbon on Earth. Its availability exceeds 300bn tonnes, increasing by around 20bn t/yr. A high quantity of lignin is found in wood, in which it represents 20-35% in terms of weight. Compared to other wood components (cellulose and hemicelluloses), it is a much more complex polymer but has been considered for a long time a low-quality and low-added-value material.
However, developing technologies now allow the extraction of high-purity lignin, which can be converted in various high-value chemicals and products, among which are BTX (Benzene, Toluene, Xylene), phenol, vanillin or carbon fibre.