What is Lignin?

What is Lignin
Eva Steele PhD

Today we are speaking to Eva Steele, who is studying for a PhD at Edinburgh University; processes to valorise lignin. The PhD is co-sponsored by Scottish Foresty with Bio-Sep as the industrial partner and provider of the lignin.

Eva, why don’t you start by telling us what is lignin?

Lignin is a large complex polymer found in plants where it makes up roughly a third of the plant cell wall. It evolved in plants when plants emerged from the sea and moved on to land. They didn’t have convenience of water to float them and therefore could only be very small because they didn’t have the rigidity to stand upright. Imagine seaweed with its soft flexible structure which could only grow horizontally across the land and not up into the air. So, lignin evolved and provided plants with rigidity to enable them to defy gravity and stand up right. It provided further benefits including protection from the suns UVB rays, and it also evolved a random structure providing the plants with protection from airborne pathogens. The inherent randomness in lignin protects them from pathogens because pathogens can never figure out how to break down lignin because it’s varies so much from plant to plant and even from organ to organ within the plant.

What do you mean by the inherent randomness of lignin?

Lignin, broadly speaking is made up of three different monomers, which are small organic molecules which can connect into polymers. Different plant species use different amounts of each of the monomers, those monomers are also linked together in random ways. This is due to radical coupling, which is a very inherently random process, which means every lignin polymer forms in a very random way!

So each plant has lignin’s so different to each other so that pathogens like bacteria don’t know how to get through them?

Yes, fungi and bacteria can never evolve a way to break lignin down because it’s never the same. The pathogen is never able to experience the same thing, again and again and again, between plant organs and also between different plants. So, from the plants perspective it’s very, very useful stuff.

But doesn’t the randomness mean that there’s a challenge involved in looking at lignin from your research perspective?

It is a massive challenge, but one that is of huge interest. Lignin makes up a third of the plant cell wall and is thought to be the second most abundant polymer on the planet. It also has very specific chemical properties that are useful to us. Its structure is aromatic which is a specific chemical grouping which provides very useful properties, such as in platform drugs for pharmaceuticals and cosmetics and things like that.

But, the randomness means that when you try to fractionate it, it doesn’t break down into a consistent product. You end up with a big soup of random, yet very similar molecules, which is good for use in certain material applications such as resins and composites. But challenging if we want to separate out specific, speciality chemicals which you would want to target for certain, high value applications such as flavouring and fragrances and pharmaceuticals, these would include vanillin; natures source of vanilla that is found in lignin.

Vanillin from Lignin

 

So tell me what is the feedstock for this for this lignin?

We are currently using sawdust from Sitka spruce, which is a very abundant forestry crop in Scotland. The sawdust is provided for us from a James Jones & Sons sawmill.

Scottish Forestry are interested in valorising lignin because it makes up a third of the wood biomass material by weight roughly. If we can find a way to fractionate it and get a much more valuable use out of it, it will be economically great for Scotland and the forestry industry.

And what do you see is the future of lignin in the world?

Lignin will help replace conventional oil sources, the long term goal is for bio-refineries to eventually replace conventional oil refineries as the source for fuels and platform chemicals. So ultimately, lignin will become the staple aromatic replacement in bio-refineries, and where we ultimately draw our platform biochemicals from. It’s pretty big, as it will reduce reliance on petrochemicals and help reduce carbon emissions.

Pretty exciting to be part of this and tell me so you’re on your industrial placement, what’s your what’s your day look like? What do you enjoy?

 My day is filled with lab work, which I really enjoy. Actually, I love just being in the lab, wandering around doing various tasks. I am doing a lot of stuff not just with lignin, but with cellulose as well. I’m helping with the fractionation process; separating cellulose from lignin, analysing the products, and producing samples of the products for people or companies who are interested downstream users.

 Very exciting, and what are your next steps once you finish this industrial placement?

Well, when I finished all go back to Edinburgh University and carry on with my own analysis of Bio-Sep lignin which will involve some chemical analytical techniques like NMR, mass spectrometry, GPC. Then we will look at ways to further fractionate the lignin and extract specific, speciality compounds from it and essentially add further value which is the topic of my posting.

Wow, sounds fascinating, thank you, Eva. We look forward to seeing the results of your PhD.

Meet The Team – Miranda Lindsay-Fynn, Commercial Director

Meet The Team

Meet the Team  Miranda Lindsay-Fynn, Commercial Director

– The following is the second in our Meet the Team series and an interview with co-founder and commercial director, Miranda Lindsay-Fynn – 

Miranda Lindsay-Fynn

A co-founder of Bio-Sep, Miranda is an experienced entrepreneur and marketing director with extensive sector experience including industrial biotechnology, retail and distribution, and B-2-B corporate services. She leads go-to-market activities, building commercial relationships with downstream chemical partners in the Bio Sep supply chain and heading up all marketing activities.

Can you tell me what you do at Bio-Sep?

I am the commercial director at Bio-Sep, which has two key parts:

1/ The first is building awareness of our sustainable biorefinery technology and our company so that people learn about what we do and how our process works, and the wonderful bio-based products that can be produced. This would be achieved through a mix of attending events, through online promotion and through joining industry associations.

2/ The second part of my role relates to building partnerships and relationships with people that will help us commercialise the technology.

What does Bio-Sep do?

Bio-Sep has developed a unique low energy environmentally friendly technology that will process agricultural waste and forestry waste into bio-chemicals which can then be made into personal care products, pharmaceutical products and all sorts of performance materials products.

We’re core to the circular economy, improving the use of natural resources, as well as providing products that will help the world shift its reliance from petrochemicals into bio-sourced ingredients.

What excites you most about your role at Bio-Sep?

I love being on the front end of it – I’m telling the story, I’m pitching the tech, I’m getting people excited about what we do, and it’s amazing seeing people’s reactions. 

The impact that we can have in the forestry sector, in the consumer sector, and how integral our tech will be to a sort of clean low carbon environment is really exciting. It’s also amazing seeing, seeing how much the world is changing and moving towards that.

I’ve been involved in the company for five years now, and the shift from previously talking to companies where it was all a bit focused on bioplastics and no one was quite sure how to use the bio-sourced products. Whereas now, we’ve got people clamouring at the door – they want us for cosmetics, they want us for food production, they want us for materials for these clever applications and it’s quite amazing to be part of that movement.

At the most basic level, what is exciting is that we’re taking materials that are often burnt or considered waste, e.g. sawdust, chippings, agricultural residues and creating chemicals that can be used instead, which is a much smarter way of doing things right. 

We’re helping the world improve its use of its resources which are already stretched under a burgeoning population, consumption excess, and producing great environmentally friendly products. It’s a fantastic technology-  the world needs us!

The technology was originally developed by a chemist whose background was in sugar production and he saw the waste from sugar cane production.  The Bagasse (or the leftover sugar cane), which is over 50% of the plant, was just left to rot or burn. He started looking at tech that will break down the woody biomass; the fibrous part of the sugar cane and developed this technology.

Because we are located in Europe, forestry is the major issue where they’re looking at the moment to try and make it more sustainable, to try and make sure that all of the trees can be used as a product and even better a carbon sink. 

Presently most of the by-products or leftovers are burned as CHP pellets actually but, you know, down the line, we will look at upcycling all sorts of alternative materials. I spent several years living in Asia, and the smog that used to hit Singapore from the burning of palm fronds every year is terrible. We could actually take those fronds and put them through our technology process and fractionate them into these fantastic biochemical products, rather than the current scenario of burning and creating pollution. So there are huge global potential applications beyond forestry with economic and environmental benefits.

What type of partners are likely to find what you do of interest?

We are an enabling technology, which means that we will enable the forestry producer or the agriculture producer, to turn their product into biochemicals so for that we need input partners. We are currently talking to several interesting Scottish companies about potentially putting our first commercial plants, alongside their milling operations with their biomass input.

We’re also talking to various engineering partners who have been following our tech for at least five years now. One, in particular, I’ve met through various associations and they’re really keen to help us scale it up and develop the first plans for the plant.

We’re also talking to chemical companies, and this might be someone who would take our product straight away, it might be the brand with the end-consumer products, the people making scents and perfumes and cosmetics. We need the value chain all linked up to make sure that the input knows where it’s going at the end.

A lot of companies are trying to shift towards bio-sourced chemicals; they just don’t have the supply at the moment. And if they do, a lot of biochemicals so far are coming from actual food sources, food-grade biomass such as sugar and corn.

And many companies don’t want that; they’d rather it be from waste biomass.

So, there’s a lot of interest and there’s a lot of people preparing to go that way, they just need the chemicals which come from technology such as ours.

How does Bio-Sep fit into the government policy in the UK?

Government policy is trying to improve resources and to move to a zero-carbon industry. We will be producing chemicals that have a much lower carbon footprint than your petrochemical alternatives or even certain other food-based ones. 

Zero Waste Scotland is looking at their underutilised resources such as the byproduct of forestry. How can they make better use of it which creates jobs, or create a new economy in Scotland, it would create new products coming out of Scotland. We’ve had some really interesting talks with the likes of Scottish Enterprise who are the body that partnered with Zero Waste Scotland on how they can help us put our tech in Scotland to fit with their policies of creating biorefineries to better utilise their resources.

We’ve got a lot of support and encouragement and help from them because they need technology such as ours to fulfil their goals. 

The way we see it, our approach is appealing as producing products such as ours which will remain a carbon sink because they’re not going to get burnt, they might be retained in a particular material or product or in a food product or anything but you’re not going to be releasing the carbon that’s grown basically.

How do you view your next few years at Bio-Sep? 

We’ve spent close to a decade developing and fine-tuning this technology. Right now we’ve got it into a position to scale and that’s super exciting. We have just secured our next round of financing, which will enable us to design our first commercial plant and develop the partnerships to commercialise the operation, most likely in Scotland so it’s all guns blazing. 

Our team has been growing at a rate of knots. We’ve got some brilliant people now in that team, so that’s great. And, we’re getting exposure. Last year we won a really exciting competition, the Enabling Technologies Award from the Royal Society of Chemistry, which opened huge doors for us and gave us the vital support we need so that’s exciting as well.

Tech Tour Bioeconomy Award Winner 2021

Tech Tour Award Winner 2021

Bio-Sep were invited to take part in the Tech Tour Food and Bioeconomy 2021 event in Aarhus alongside 37 fantastic sustainable technology companies. We were selected to participate due to our technology being a bioeconomy innovation for the production of bio-based materials from waste and its potential impact on the circular economy. It was a fantastic event, our managing director, Adrian Black pitched Bio-Sep’s innovative biorefinery technology to a selection of investors, corporations and government stakeholders.

We are thrilled to announce that we won the award of top presenting company and have been selected to participate in the Tech Tour Future 22 event in March 2022. This event will brings together the best presenters from all the 2021 Emerging Tech Tour Events to pitch in front of Bioeconomy investors in this space. 

Thank you to the team at Tech Tour for supporting Bio-Sep’s sustainable, clean and green biorefinery technology and providing us with opportunities to  reach investors, partner corporations and government experts in the field of the bioeconomy. We also are proud to be alongside some incredible start-ups also working towards a more sustainable future.

tech tour food and bioeconomy awards

Forestry and Timber News Article October 2021

Forestry and Timber News Article

A feature article on Bio-Sep’s technology in an environment and climate change special for Forestry and Timber News, the magazine for Confor members and the UK forest industries. Going green: unlocking valuable renewable chemicals from the by-products of forestry.

Forestry and Timber News Article Bio-Sep

Forestry and Timber News, October 2021. Bioeconomy focus piece for Confor

Forestry and Timber News Article Bio-Sep

Forestry and Timber News October 2021, Environment and Climate Change Special

Emerging Technologies Competition Winner (Enabling Technologies), 2021

Enabling Technologies Winner 2021

WINNER Sustainable Enabling Technology 2021

For

Ultrasonic Conversion of Lignocellulosic Biomass to High Value Chemicals.

The Emerging Technologies Competition is the Royal Society of Chemistry’s annual initiative for early stage companies and academic entrepreneurs who want to commercialise their technologies to make a societal impact.

We were amongst the 24 finalists invited to pitch their technologies to a judging panel of industry heavyweights at an exciting virtual live final. We are thrilled to announce that we won our category; as an enabling technology.

Bio-Sep were chosen as winners as ''their technology aims to solve a critical global challenge namely the need for renewable carbon sources, and it looks to do this by making efficient use of an abundant waste stream.''

Jo Slota-Newson, Principal, IQ Capital Tweet

Jo Slota-Newson continued that ‘the judges were impressed with the breadth and depth of capabilities in the interdisciplinary team and, while the technology has a significant development path ahead, the team demonstrated a thoughtful approach that focused on the critical elements of scale-up. So we very much looking forward to seeing their progress from here on.’

Our chief chemist Dr Andy West, pitched our technology to an impressive panel of judges from global companies including AstraZeneca, PepsiCo and Unilever, organisations that we aspire to partner with in the future as we bring our products to market, including AstraZeneca, PepsiCo and Unilever. 

Thrilled by winning our category and the impact it will have as we commercialise our technology over the coming year, he responded;

“For a small company to get this level of recognition from an organisation like the Royal Society of Chemistry and all of the judges involved is amazing, and the difference it will make is huge. Just that recognition that we’re making a difference or trying to make a difference is really really good, and the external validation will be brilliant for us.

“We’re in this take-up stage where we are really trying to push to get our technology on the market and one of the things we’re missing – which this win will really help with – is that validation of the products that we make, so we can now get a lot of external validation which would have previously been a big challenge for us – and that, again, will be a game changer for us.”

The prize includes a £20,000 cash prize, further business acceleration grants and a RSC mentor. We look forward to meeting the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Entrepreneur in Residence – Steve Pleasance, who will start our mentoring programme.

Dr Andy West

Meet the Bio-Sep team

Meet the Team Dr Andy West, Chief Chemist

The following is the first in our Meet the Team series and we commence with an interview with Andy West.

Dr Andy West

Dr Andy West,

a Chartered Chemist and a Chartered Scientist, Andy has extensive experience providing innovation consultancy and technology transfer support for SMEs, particularly related to sustainability, waste as a resource and climate change mitigation. Andy looks after all of the chemistry aspects of Bio-Sep from processing, handling product separation, and also all the front end research and development.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

I think it’s a cliche that people often say “Every day is different”, but in what is quite a small business at the moment, it is true for me. Every day is very different, and it’s really broad so I’m a chemist by training, but I’m involved in all sorts of things now that I wouldn’t normally get involved with, in a bigger business.

What excites you the most about Bio-Sep?

Bio-Sep is on a very interesting journey. The opportunity to work in lots of different areas is fascinating for me from a company point of view.

What’s also exciting is that the technology that we’ve developed over time is completely novel. There isn’t anything else like it on the market, and the impact this technology could have on the world in terms of reducing carbon emissions, saving cost and import substitutions and helping people is really exciting.

It’s a very interesting technology. So for a chemistry geek like myself, it is a great business to be involved in.

The journey of the company means that this is something that I think is going to grow from a small company based in the heart of England, to something that could be national, international, and much, much bigger. 

Let’s talk about the carbon emission piece because I think that’s very topical at the moment, could you explain how Bio-Sep helps reduce carbon emissions?

An awful lot of the materials that we’re looking to process would currently be either burnt or sent for landfill and all of that carbon that’s been embedded in those products, so things like wood waste or municipal solid waste will get lost over time, released into the environment. 

Natural degradation or burning will release all of that carbon that’s trapped within those materials into the environment. The Bio-Sep process turns all of that embedded carbon into useful products. 

So platform chemicals and materials can be used after processing to replace crude oil-derived products. It means all of that carbon remains trapped within the product rather than being released. As a result, there are multiple benefits from the process including things like the cost of transporting, the cost of importing chemicals, all kinds of perfect substitutes.. We’ve got that ability to use materials that would otherwise be effectively lost as waste. These represent powerful benefits of the technology. 

Can you explain how Bio-Sep could help with municipal waste?

There’s a lot of waste materials that are sent to landfill, not because they’re not of high quality or because they couldn’t be reused but simply because of the way that legislation works.

So, for example, materials that have been in contact with food are always sent to landfill because the risk of contamination is too high for them to be recycled. Our process would make sure that anything that went through it was completely sterilised before it came out the other end. 

And then fractionated into all of those useful materials, so say lamps from cardboard, lignins also from cardboard and other materials that we would then be able to reuse, without the fear of that contamination problem.

What types of applications would the Bio-Sep process feed into?

The materials could be used as ‘drop in’ replacements in some industries but we’re quite excited about the fact that these compounds can all be further processed into materials that people would use in everyday life. So they could be used in pharmaceuticals, they can be used in cosmetics. They could be used in food and flavours and fragrances so you could have them as sweeteners, natural sweeteners or they could be converted into flavours like fruit flavours or all the things that people would have in their daily lives. 

At the other end of the scale, we can go into things like construction so we can use in glues resins and paints, we can use them as fillers in cement concrete which reduces the number of imports, we have to bring into the UK on fillers and that’s a really big market and there’s a huge need for that.

The lignin component can be used on road surfaces, so you can use this as an extender for bitumen.

It is a very broad spectrum of things that we could use these materials in; clothes, paper, face cream – there are a huge number of applications for these materials.

There is a lot of research going on in, in these materials as you’d expect, because they haven’t been widely available, until very recently, also not in pure form, and the sort of research you’re looking at includes all the wooden materials, graphene, nanofibers, and nano fibrillated cellulose which has all sorts of pharmaceutical applications. So they’re really nice but very very high value. There is also the potential to allow these materials to be less niche which is important for things like graphene or carbon nanotubes and those materials that have a huge promise but aren’t widely available yet.

What type of partner is likely to find what Bio-Sep offers of interest?

The partners are both front end or upstream and downstream. 

So we’ve got companies who are making those resources so let’s say it’s forestry, or it might be local government if it’s just for solid waste storage. It might be industry producers or other lignocellulosic type materials. So that’s the front end part.

The downstream element is pharmaceutical companies, food and flavour companies, those working in construction materials, glues and resins and so on. 

Some of the more niche applications are working with other SMEs who are doing some really exciting research into what we might use these materials including high-value pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals and drop-in replacements for resins and fire retardants

There’s a whole host of different applications, and we’re selecting those ones that we think are easy wins and therefore will support the business in the short term, with the vision to have those more long term high value wins further down the line. 

How do you view the next few years at Bio-Sep?

There’s a huge amount to do. It’s very exciting because this is very, very different to be in a business that has so many options and so many opportunities. The next big next step for the company is to build a large scale unit, processing about 20,000 tonnes a year. That will probably be in Scotland.  We can then demonstrate at scale that we can make these products constantly and consistently. Consistently is a really important part because there’s an awful lot in competing technologies as normal, often variability in products, and we want to be certain that our preliminary results that demonstrate this are consistent and can be carried out at scale to customers.

RSC Emerging Technologies Competition Finalist

Emerging Technologies Finalist 2021

RSC Emerging Technologies Competition 2021 Finalist

We are proud to announce that we have been selected as a finalist in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s annual Emerging Technologies Competition. The competition is the Royal Society of Chemistry’s annual initiative for early stage companies and academic entrepreneurs who want to commercialise their technologies to make a societal impact. The competition is open to European companies and seeks to identify start-ups and spin outs who are developing the most novel, innovative and promising chemistry tech.

For 2021, the competition attracted over 120 high-quality applications and our final shortlisted 24 companies represent a diverse range of proposals from tech innovators, start-ups and spin outs from across the continent.

Our ultrasonic biorefinery technology that enables the conversion of non-food woody biomass to high value chemicals has been chosen as a finalist in the enabling technology category for sustainable innovation.

The novel process (BioSep+) technology converts lignocellulosic biomasses efficiently, cleanly and economically into cellulose, sugars and lignin.

The process is environmentally friendly using recoverable solvents, and demands significantly less energy than comparable process by employing ultrasound to break the chemical bonds in the biomass. We produce quality separated products for use as bio-sourced platform chemicals in a wide range of industrial and domestic applications.

Follow the link to view the finalists and read about the competition – Enabling Technologies Finalists

The final of the competition is an online dragon den style pitch event which runs on the 29th and 30th June 2021. The enabling technology category finalists will be pitching between 1-3pm on the 30th June. This pitch event is open for anyone to attend virtually follow the link below to the competition to sign up.

Emerging Technologies Competition Finals