The report, “High-Value Opportunities for Lignin: Ready for liftoff,” says lignin is already a major component of biomass. However, it’s being used for low- and medium-application representing a market of just $730 million worldwide. It has a market potential of more than $130 billion if certain challenges are met, the report says.
The market potential, which could reach as high as $203 billion by 2020, is tied to four products analyzed by Frost & Sullivan: BTX, phenol, vanillin and carbon fiber.
Lignin has the potential to be used for high-value applications as early as 2017 as a substitute phenol or as a component in polyurethane. Public and private R&D projects underway could also make lignin-based phenolic monomers or carbon fiber a reality by 2020, the report says.
Lignin could also become the main renewable aromatic resource for the chemical industry.
The biochemical industry is already replacing existing oil-based ones. Lignin can be used as a green alternative to fuels, resins, rubber additives, thermoplastic blends and pharmaceuticals.
Companies are already testing ways to more efficiently extract lignin and then sell it as a feedstock. CIMV and Lignol specialize in developing patented technologies that break down biomass into its main components. The companies are currently operating pilot plants.
The main potential is found within aromatics, for which depolymerisation processes for lignin are in early R&D, the report says. Technologies today don’t allow the one-step production for any pre-determined selection of chemicals. Current processes tend to yield unwanted chemicals that need to disposed of, illustrating the need to improve the use of lignin as a feedstock, the report says.
The potential for lignin is hamstrung by a weak link between R&D and the pulp and paper industry. Lignin is mostly unheard of, and as a result, few participants have created commercial solutions based on this material, the report says. The pulp and paper industry and research departments in universities tend to focus on improving yields for their main products, not develop applications for lignin.