With love for the complex lignin molecule

With love for the complex lignin molecule

A curiosity for working on renewable energy sources was a driver for Omar Abdelaziz when he had the chance to work with this during his studies in his home country Egypt. Although Egypt is an oil-driven society, relying mostly on fossil energy sources, there are initiatives to find more sustainable solutions. He looked for positions as a PhD focusing on biorefineries and moved to Lund in 2015.

– Six years later I am in love with this lignin molecule that I have spent so much time with, says Omar Abdelaziz and laughs.

He finished his PhD in 2021 in Chemical Engineering on the topic lignin conversion to value-added small-molecule chemicals: towards integrated forest biorefineries.

– Sweden has a long tradition and strong position in forestry and the pulp and paper industry. For many years, and in many ways, researchers and industries have tried to make use of lignin, and there is an old adage that: β€œone can make anything out of lignin except money.”

Currently, there is a renewed interest in lignin, as its qualities and potential use areas are broad, and it is easy to access.

– In the woody biomass from trees, lignin is the component that constitutes up to 30 percent of the mass. As society is driving towards a transition to bio-based economies, we must utilise the whole tree, all the components of the wood.

Lignin is one of the most abundant aromatic resources in nature, an enormous natural resource that can be used. But it often cannot be used as it is, it must be modified. Lignin is rather easy to extract, but not easy to work with – it is a complex molecule. To date, lignin does not have a well-defined structure or sequence. About 50–60 percent of its structure has been discovered so far, and numerous researchers are now working to put all the pieces together.

– It is a challenge when you cannot work in the way you can with a single compound that you can convert to a higher, valued-added compound. Lignin typically results in a mixture, it is heterogeneous.

Omar Abdelaziz started to work in the STEPS programme just as lignin was added to the various matters for the research on building blocks for sustainable plastics in work package 1.

– We are providing the chemical intermediates that are useful for further polymerisation for plastics, handled by work package 2. I work specifically on the depolymerisation of lignin extracted from industrial sources, breaking it down into smaller pieces, low-molecular-weight aromatics, which are good candidates for bioplastics, e.g., as replacements for bisphenol A.

– Since I have a chemical engineering background and have worked with evaluating the feasibility of various biorefinery systems, I am also involved in technical and economical assessments on scaling the lab demos for real world testing and use.

Joining STEPS during the pandemic meant that Omar did not meet many others in person. However, the online meetings, especially STEPS Informs were useful for knowledge exchange and networking. The ongoing collaboration with work package 2 was established based on a STEPS Informs session and a joint meeting between the two work packages.

– STEPS is an interesting research programme, as it connects so many actors from both academia and industry. We are also active internationally, in a pan-European network on the sustainable valorisation of lignin, called LignoCOST, supported by the EU framework programme Horizon 2020.

– I also think that a great approach in the phase II of the STEPS Programme is the Missions, led by industrial partners. I have some ideas that could contribute to at least two of the four missions included in STEPS and I hope to get a chance to explore them. The material we are working with has an immense potential and can bring value to society – and it provides rewarding research as well!

Omar Abdelaziz, Chemical Engineering, Lund University