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Prisma finds application for biomass waste lignin


Using feedstock that includes locally-sourced switchgrass, a Knoxville, TN company has developed technology that produces high-value applications from lignin. The company’s CEO, Adam McCall, Prisma Renewable Composites, was interviewed recently for a story in the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Lignin, along with cellulose and hemicellulose, makes up most plant materials. In the biomass world, lignin was considered “an afterthought,” McCall said. The sugars— cellulose and hemicellulose—were used to create materials including biofuels, but lignin was not the focus of many. But McCall and the Prisma team were stubborn, and it showed in their initial statement.
“‘We’re convinced that lignin does have use, and we are convinced that if we keep peeling the onion, we will find very high value uses,’ That was our statement when we got started,” McCall said.

Three years later, Prisma’s technology has created commercially ready market applications like packaging products. The company expects its biopolymers, including plastics and 3-D printing filaments, to be market-ready within the next two years. Its carbon fiber composites will require a maximum of three years before going to market.

“We were stubborn about lignin, but we were very open-minded about the end applications,” McCall said. ”Is it good for the country? Does it still utilize biomass? And most importantly, is it something that a customer is going to pay for? Whether it’s packaging or it’s carbon fiber, I don’t care.”

To create products using lignin, Prisma, along with its partners at the University of Tennessee’s Center for Renewable Carbon, first had to examine the industry standard for available lignin. Most of it had already suffered through pretreatment processes conducted to separate it from cellulose in the pulp and paper industry.

Cellulose molecules look the same in every plant, which makes it easier to adapt, McCall said. Lignin is like a snowflake. No two molecules are the same.

“The ghostly challenge was that no two lignins are alike, and here we are trying to create consistent fibers,” he said. “So where a lot of our work began was on step one, modifying that lignin in such a way that we can manipulate it consistently.”

To better manipulate lignin, Prisma and its partners developed “evolutia,” a biomass fractionation process they patented and trademarked. Lignin was taken out and away from the plant immediately before further biorefining steps had taken place, giving chemists a more natural and more easily modified lignin molecule without sacrificing the usefulness of the cellulose.

“Previously to that, what they did is say, ‘OK, here is biomass. We want the sugars...at the back end, after we’ve applied a lot of chemicals and temperature and pressure, let’s see if we can use the lignin.”

Once the team had its own lignin, developing materials was next. But the work didn’t stop there. “We got so good at producing materials from that lignin that we then started taking a step back and taking commercially available lignin and saying, ‘OK, now that we’ve learned so much about what you have to do to lignin to produce carbon fibers and plastics, can we now start taking these biorefined lignins and make things out of them?’
“And the answer is yes.”

Prisma’s technologies to produce materials from lignin lines up with the company’s business model of taking the unused portion of the plant in the biomass industry and using it to create more materials. Lignin was the choice of focus, because most companies were focusing on sugars.

“Sugars can get you X amount of dollars per ton of biomass,” he said. “That, right now, is a pretty fixed number. We want to be the ones who say ‘OK, I can start paying you Y per ton for what you’re not even using right now.’ And when you add that together that’s what our work can do in almost every bio-based industry that is using sugars.”

The goal for Prisma is to supply its chemistry and business models to partner companies with the resources to create products on a larger scale, and McCall expects the goal to soon be met. “What we’re talking about changes the economic model of, really, all uses of biomass for further refining and material production,” he said. “It changes that model in a really legitimate way.”

About the author:
Cortney Roark is a business reporter from Sharps Chapel, Tenn. She writes for the Knoxville News Sentinel, as well as the Greater Knoxville Business Journal, covering all things green. The article above was originally published in the Knoxville News Sentinel February 6, 2017; used with permission.

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