Binders and Coatings

Research project

Thinking Lignin Design – Climate-friendly chemical products on the basis of plant residues

Model project for collaboration between science, art and design

Many chemical products, such as paints, adhesives, plastics and synthetic fibers, are based on aromatic carbon compounds. Currently, the majority of these are derived from fossil raw materials such as crude oil, natural gas and coal. The vegetable raw material lignin presents a promising alternative and is created in huge quantities as a waste product within the paper industry. The petrochemical source materials cannot, however, simply be replaced by lignin. Creative materials research is necessary here. In our project, the application of artistic methods enables us to identify suitable application possibilities for lignin, develop prototypes and establish a communication strategy. For this purpose, we are working together with designers from the Weißensee Kunsthochschule Berlin. One aim of the project is the initiation of a sustainable connection between science, art and design. 

Two hands in blue laboratory gloves hold a black, plastic-like piece of lignin derivative and twist it in opposite directions.
© Fraunhofer WKI | Manuela Lingnau
Manual testing of the bending properties of a flexible lignin derivative.
Laboratory glass without a lid, which contains a brown, coffee-like powder.
© Fraunhofer WKI | Manuela Lingnau
Finely ground lignin derivative is suitable as a basic building block for climate-friendly paints, adhesives and plastics.

Lignocellulose provides structure to the cell walls of all trees and woody plants. It consists of cellulose, hemicelluloses and lignin. The paper industry uses cellulose to produce paper and pulp. Lignin is created as a waste product of this process and is currently primarily thermally utilized, i.e. incinerated. There is, however, great potential for higher-value usage, as lignin already contains aromatic structures. It is therefore suitable as a basic building block for chemical products such as paints, adhesives, plastics and synthetic fibers. From a chemical perspective, lignin is therefore an untapped treasure. Through the utilization of lignin, large quantities of petrochemical raw materials could be saved.

The utilization of lignin is, however, not trivial, as the “junctions” and the “form” of lignin differ greatly from those of petrochemical raw materials. Lignin can be envisaged as a piece of a puzzle that does not fit anywhere. The challenge thereby is to find applications for which the special structure of lignin provides a benefit. The collaboration with the Weißensee Kunsthochschule Berlin addresses precisely this issue. Designers, by nature, think outside the box and can enrich development processes through their unconventional viewpoint and approach. They are trained to find concrete and functional solutions with the help of creative techniques. Together, we identify suitable applications for lignin and implement these in prototypes. Furthermore, we develop a suitable communication strategy in order to provide both experts and the public with a better understanding. In doing so, we hope to pave the way for an increased utilization of lignin in chemical products.

At the same time, the project serves us as a model project for the combination of science, art and design. By means of the concrete research and development work on the subject of lignin, we are able to develop new concepts for establishing contacts and fruitful exchange between researchers, artists and designers. In this way, a sustainable collaboration should emerge which can be continued in other projects. 

The project is financed by the Fraunhofer Network “Science, Art and Design”, which was founded in 2018. The Network promotes interdisciplinary collaboration and the application of artistic methods in science. The mutual inspiration opens up perspectives on unusual research approaches for mastering complex social challenges.

Results

The project resulted in a variety of panel materials for furniture construction and a flexible leather alternative for the fashion industry. The path leading towards the aim of replacing petrochemical raw materials in the processing industry with lignin has thereby been shortened.

The results of the project have been presented under the title “Black Liquor” in the form of a digital presentation (in German) on 24th September 2020 in the STATE Studio Berlin. 

For further information on the project results, please refer to our press release published on September 11, 2020 and to the project website “Black Liquor”:

Project partner

  • Weißensee Kunsthochschule Berlin

Funding

Funding body:
Fraunhofer Network “Science, Art and Design”

Duration:
1.9.2019 to 31.8.2020