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NSERC Biomaterials and Chemicals Strategic Network (2010 - 2015)

Challenge

The forest industry, one of Canada's largest industries, is facing unprecedented challenges due to competition from low cost sources of wood and declining demand. The industry is at a crossroads and must change. Production of new, high value products as a complement to its traditional commodity products is a path to a sustainable future.

Lignin is one of the primary components of wood, second only to cellulose in abundance. When wood is pulped to obtain cellulose fibres, the lignin—up to 25 percent of the wood mass-is dissolved as "black liquor." This is currently burned to recover pulping chemicals and provide energy in the mill. However, lignin also has the potential to be a feedstock chemical for various products. Beyond existing applications for adhesives, dispersants and surfactants, exciting new research is pointing the way to lignin-derived carbon-fibre composites for strong, light automobile parts; carbon aerogels for hydrogen storage; and new biobased polymers. The aim of this network is to develop technology platforms to deliver this next generation of biomaterials and chemicals from forest-derived lignin.

Network Structure

The NSERC Biomaterials and Chemicals Strategic Network is one of four networks created in 2010 as a part of the NSERC Forest Sector R&D Initiative. The Scientific Director is Cedric Briens, Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering at Western University, the host university.

The 15 research projects in the network each advance one of two technology platforms:

  1. Value-added lignin-based materials
  2. Functionalized aromatic monomers and oligomers

The projects are also grouped into three discipline-based themes, each led by a prominent scientist in the field. The themes and their respective leads are:

  • Polymeric products – Lead: Frank Ko, Department of Materials Engineering, The University of British Columbia
  • Thermochemical processing of lignin – Lead: Cedric Briens, Western Fluidization Group, Western University
  • Catalytic processing of lignin – Lead: R. Tom Baker, Centre for Catalysis Research and Innovation, University of Ottawa

The network has 15 principal investigators from nine universities. Among these are five Canada Research Chairs, an Ontario Premier’s Research Chair, a Dawson Scholar, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. A deliberate choice was made to seek out researchers new to forestry, to bring a fresh perspective and new blood to the field. Industrial partners in the network are FPInnovations, Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries Inc., Lignol Energy and Weyerhaeuser.

Research Objectives

The polymeric products theme will produce a variety of materials both from lignin and from the monomers and oligomers formed by thermochemical and catalytic processing. Products of interest are lignin-derived mesophase carbon fibres, electrospun lignin nanofibres and lignin-based carbon aerogels. These nanostructured fibrous materials will be combined with various thermoplastic polymers in reinforced biocomposites. Monomers from thermochemical or catalytic processing of lignin will be used to make novel peptide or conducting polymers. Finally, lignin as isolated will be incorporated into plasticized lignin/polymer blends.

The thermochemical processing theme will develop pyrolysis technologies to degrade lignin to smaller fragments. The initial bio-oil produced in pyrolysis is a complex mixture of highly-oxygenated organic compounds. In addition to optimizing pyrolysis operating parameters, this theme includes projects to deoxygenate, extract and purify the bio-oil to make a suitable feedstock for existing chemical refineries.

The catalytic processing theme will apply the full gamut of catalytic approaches: base and transition metal catalysts, homogeneous and heterogeneous systems, bacterial transformation and reactions in ionic liquids. Catalysis will be used not only to degrade lignin to smaller fragments, but also to functionalize these fragments so that they can be further transformed to valuable chemicals and materials. There will be strong interaction between the thermochemical and catalytic processing themes.

Outcomes

The NSERC Biomaterials and Chemicals Strategic Network will provide a suite of technologies to develop value-added products from forest-based lignin. This will benefit traditional pulp mills by diversifying the range of products they can offer and benefit the emerging biofuels sector by providing value-added products to complement the low-margin, high-volume nature of fuel production.

The technologies developed in the network will also benefit the chemical and automobile industries, which are experiencing radical changes in their fundamental structure. The chemical industry is vigorously seeking biomass-based feedstocks, a significant portion of which could come from lignin. The lignin-based materials developed in the network will also contribute to the automobile industry’s search for light, strong composite materials to produce the safe, fuel-efficient vehicles of the future.

Contacts

Cedric Briens (Scientific Director)
Tel.: 519-661-2111, ext. 88865
E-mail: cbriens@uwo.ca

Chantal Gloor (Network Manager)
Tel: 519-661-2111, ext. 88336
E-mail: cmgloor@uwo.ca

John Schmidt (Liaison Manager)
Tel.: 514-630-4101, ext. 2370
E-mail: John.schmidt@fpinnovations.ca


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