Lignolix wins $2.5M Department of Energy grant to advance chemical separations process for adhesives products

September 9, 2021

As part of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announcement of $64.7 million in funding for projects focused on producing cost-effective, low-carbon biofuels, the DOE BioEnergy Technology Office (BETO) has awarded Lignolix a $2.49M grant. These investments will advance technologies to create replacements for petroleum fuels and accelerate America’s path to a net-zero emissions economy by 2050. This funding will allow Lignolix to advance the technology which enables novel biobased adhesives ingredients in order to replace currently used petroleum-derived options. 

Adhesives products are all around you – from the cereal box top to the edge banding on your furniture to the paper label stuck on glass beverage containers. Adhesives are big business. That said, it’s also a very established market. So, why innovate? And why now? The answer: Sustainability. Just like in many other industries – think Clean Eating, Clean Beauty, even laundry detergent “with only 6 ingredients” – many brands are feeling the consumer pressure to be more environmentally- and human health-friendly. Adhesives are typically derived from petroleum which inherently makes them not very environmentally friendly but it also causes other issues like price fluctuation with variable oil prices. By switching to the right bio-based materials, adhesives products can meet consumer demands while also offering superior performance and ranges of use. This is the business that Lignolix is in. 

Developing a new technology to solve these problems is not easy. The Lignolix team has been working on it since 2019 – after many years of research at the University of Delaware lab where the invention originates – to align the technical capabilities with the performance goals. In particular, breaking down lignin and separating out the important products is notoriously difficult. Traditional separation methods, such as conventional chromatography, often are plagued by fouling and struggle to achieve purity targets. As a result, lignin, which  is a key structural material in most plants, has typically been viewed as a waste product or burned for energy due to the difficulty in working with it. 

To overcome this challenge, Lignolix teamed up with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado and Dynamic Solutions in the United Kingdom with a proposal titled “Enabling Lignin Valorization with Liquid Liquid Chromatography”. 

Excitingly, the Department of Energy has announced today that it is funding this joint effort for $2.5M over the next three years. 

“I’m thrilled that the Department of Energy has awarded a grant to Lignolix, a company with roots in Professor Thomas Epps’ lab at the University of Delaware, to support their work to transform plant waste into clean fuels and sustainable materials – another success story out of Delaware’s entrepreneurship community,” said U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-DE). 

This new technical innovation will produce purified monomers and dimers as “green” adhesive ingredients to replace petrochemical incumbents. Providing not only bio-based sources of adhesive product ingredients but also upcycled ones (again, lignin is historically thrown away in chemical processes) provides a double punch of sustainability along with superior performance.  

Dr. Eric Gottlieb, the proposal’s Principal Investigator and the CEO of Lignolix says, “With this DOE grant, we will mature state of the art separations technology into commercial applications. NREL and Dynamic extractions are world leaders in biomass process and separations technologies, and we are excited to work with them to develop the best lignin upcycling process on the market.”

Valorizing lignin while providing a much-needed solution for the commercial sector is a win-win all the while reducing reliance on petroleum and thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Lignolix is excited to work with its partners to deliver on this promise and make an impact on the clean bioeconomy. 

Dr. Eric Gottlieb in the Lignolix lab