Press release

Science meets design: strong and flexible composite materials made from lignin

Braunschweig / September 11, 2020

Researchers from the Fraunhofer WKI and designers from the greenlab of the weißensee academy of art berlin cooperated within the framework research program of the Fraunhofer Network “Science, Art and Design” in order to develop application possibilities for the plant material lignin. This 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.

Project staff in white coats examine samples of lignin in a laboratory.
© Fraunhofer WKI I Manuela Lingnau
In a collaborative project, researchers and designers discover application possibilities for lignin.

Many chemical products such as paints, adhesives, plastics and synthetic fibers are based on aromatic carbon compounds. Currently, the majority of these originate from fossil raw materials such as crude oil, natural gas and coal. The plant-based raw material lignin is a promising alternative, as it already contains aromatic structures and is generated on a massive scale as a waste product in the paper industry. The petrochemical starting materials cannot, however, simply be replaced by lignin, as lignin exhibits a special structure. The idea behind the cooperation between the researchers from the Fraunhofer WKI and the designers from greenlab – Lab for Sustainable Design Strategies at the weißensee academy of art berlin within the project “Thinking Lignin Design” was to implement the utilization of creative and experimental methods in order to find new perspectives for the practical application of the renewable raw material lignin.

“Various derivatives with differing flow and melting properties can be produced from lignin. Some can, for example, be ground as finely as coffee powder and can therefore be easily distributed. Others are ‘softer’ but also more elastic and could therefore be of interest as binders for flexible or fabric-like materials,” reports Project Manager Dr. Lydia Heinrich from the Fraunhofer WKI. 

“But what can actually be made using these derivatives? This is where the designers from the weißensee academy of art berlin came into play and enriched the project with their unconventional point of view and approach,” explained Dr. Nina Ritter, project member at the Fraunhofer WKI.

The cooperation partners have identified suitable applications for lignin and have implemented them in prototypes. The result is a comprehensive and tangible archive of material samples of the most diverse qualities. Possible applications for future products include a stable composite material, flexible textile coatings, and process materials for bonding joints. The derivatives can be utilized in solid panel materials for furniture construction or as flexible leather alternatives for the fashion industry.

The results of the project will be presented under the title “Black Liquor” in the form of a digital presentation (in German) on 24th September 2020 at 6 p.m. in the STATE Studio Berlin. The public Zoom event will be conducted with integrated discussion rounds. Registration is possible here: www.state-studio.com/program/black-liquor

Along with 24 other Fraunhofer institutes, the Fraunhofer WKI is a member of the “Science, Art and Design” Network, which was founded in 2018. With its work, the Network seeks to promote interdisciplinary cooperation between applied research, art and design. Joint research projects, idea competitions and exhibitions bring the participants together. The mutual inspiration opens up perspectives for unusual and innovative research approaches which can address complex social challenges. The Network's website: www.art-design.fraunhofer.de

Further information on the cooperation between the Fraunhofer WKI and the greenlab of the weißensee academy of art berlin can be found here: www.greenlab.kunsthochschule-berlin.de/archive/projects/black-liquor