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Bio-Mass, Business, Climate, Green Products

The Lignin Story

Okay, today our Kickstarter effort expires, so at a minimum I owe our supporters there a full-context overview of our Lignin status.

Lignin is the cell walls of the wood that is left over after they extract the cellulose fibers for paper making.  350 billion pounds a year are produced, and it’s burned up into greenhouse gases for virtually NIL energy production, just so they can avoid calling it waste, and having a big disposal problem.  My first involvement with lignin was when Oak Ridge National Labs contracted us at MOII to evaluate the technical markets for all the different chemicals you could get from lignin if you broke it down into its smallest component parts.  “Aromatic” molecules (i.e. those with ring structures) are the hardest thing to replace if you want to get the nation off its dependence on foreign oil supplies.  A lot of lignin work in the scientific literature makes the assumption that you want to bust the molecule up into the smallest little fragments (think about breaking up something made out of Lego blocks) and then start from scratch to build bigger molecules up again.  My idea at that time was – what a waste.  If you’re making big molecules like plastics, why not use what the plant gave us?  What I see is 350 billion pounds of high molecular weight feedstock, free for the taking, that will reduce the greenhouse gas production by whatever amount we can turn into durable goods.  Win-win.

A lot of people try to use lignin in things from concrete to composite plastics, but in this case, they are using the lignin as a filler – a big block of inert gunk with interesting surface chemistry.  Not really worth the trouble.  Nobody really makes thermoplastics out of the stuff, because when you heat it up, you get brick dust.

Then, I met up with Jim Rock and company.  Jim had bought a big defunct polyester plant, had lost his financing in the collapse of 2007, and needed something he could make there before he lost the plant.  Oak Ridge put us together, and so I embarked on the project of turning lignin into a workable, reversible, melt-flowable thermoplastic.  And inside of the first year of unpaid labor, I succeeded on the lab scale – but in the mean time, Jim had to let the old polyester plant go.

We tried 4 different ways for federal money to pursue this further, but the government stimulus money, back in 2010, all went to Education uses, and we ended up instead on a 2-year diversion into renewable energy in the form of biodiesel.  But, we never lost sight of the promise of lignin.  When our biodiesel investors decided that they could run a chemical company without chemists, quality assurance, or technical sales, and let the contract with Missing Octave expire, we were again freed up to work on lignin.

But without investors, what could we do next?  Pilot scale we could do at our MOI Labs facility, if we could just keep the company alive for a few months.  Make multiple pounds quantities, show how it works in various applications, and try to attract funding for factory scale investment.  Kickstarter looked really attractive as a small finance source, but the problem was we were not producing something that made a good reward — a pile of brown plastic powder!  We hit on the idea of molding disks and using them as coasters or game pieces.  Kind of lame per se given what financing we were asking for, but symbolic of the  effort to avoid greenhouse gas production, and so maybe appealing to environmentalist investors.  Maybe they’d be collector’s items.

No dice – the average Kickstarter is looking to get something cool for their pledge, a game or a widget or a CD or something.  In short, our project did NOT go viral on a wave of hopeful environmentalism and our 16 backers (thank you ever so much) offered up an aggregate of $482 which is less than 1/2 percent of our target.  We would have to work very hard at drumming up supporters for this particular effort – when our time was better spent knocking on doors with deeper pockets.

So, to keep Missing Octave viable, we’re looking at doing more work for the feds, and investing anything we get, over and above living expenses, into the lignin project (among others).  Status check at the moment:

  • Lab scale work looks excellent.
  • Operational parameters NOT fully explored – need more lab time.
  • Patent application drafted, polished, and ready to go when we have about $15K to pay for the filing.  This will then allow us to start showing samples to the world without losing our rights.
  • Pilot scale work has been planned out, we have space, equipment cost will be real low, and know what we need to run it.
  • We have expertise in asphalt formulation in-house, and the local highway department, which is right next door, would be happy to test something for us on an actual road – if we can make pilot scale quantities.  This also takes a LONG time, so…
  • We need pilot scale quantities to pursue application development in fibers, nonwovens, composites and on and on.  Anything you want to make, as long as it’s brown on the outside (green at its heart).

The Kickstarter project is dead, but our efforts to commercialize green technologies are just beginning.  I hope you’ll join us in this adventure – and am happy to invite you to follow this blog.

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Discussion

One thought on “The Lignin Story

  1. Best of luck. I regret the Kickstarter didn’t work out, it seems like a great idea with a lot of promise.

    Posted by zheng3 | January 3, 2014, 12:55 pm

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