Lignin precursor for carbon fiber closer to reality?

Canadian wood products firm Domtar Corp. announced has installed a commercial-scale lignin separation plant.

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Canadian wood products firm Domtar Corp. (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) announced on March 12 that it has installed a commercial-scale lignin separation plant at its Plymouth, N.C., mill, the first U.S.-based facility of its type in more than 25 years. Production of the company’s trademarked BioChoice lignin began in February, with a targeted rate of 75 metric tonnes (about 165,345 lb) per day. The plant’s product is destined for a wide range of industrial applications in the form of bio-based alternatives to petroleum-based fuels, and thermoset and thermoplastic resins. Notably, the material has potential for use as an alternative precursor in the production of industrial-grade carbon fiber.

The successful installation of commercial-scale lignin removal capacity at the Plymouth mill is the culmination of a research and engineering project launched by Domtar in 2010. The project got a boost when the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy awarded the company a grant through the Biomass Research and Development Initiative. Domtar believes its lignin operation opens a new path for the industry and also marks the latest sustainability milestone for a company that strives to be an industry leader in forest certification and environmental stewardship.

“Our vision is to be a global leader in fiber-based innovation,” says Bruno Marcoccia, Domtar’s R&D director. “A big part of this is our focus on partnering with best-in-class collaborators to develop new products and markets for a wide portfolio of initiatives.”

Hasan Jameel, a professor in North Carolina State University’s Department of Forest Biomaterials, adds, “The possibilities for making a real difference in terms of offering manufacturers a bio-based alternative to the use of petrochemicals is truly exciting. This is a big win for sustainability on two counts: Domtar improves the efficiency of its pulpmaking process, and at the same time, the market gets a reliable, high-quality source of this underused material with so much potential.”

Domtar designs, manufactures, markets and distributes a wide variety of fiber-based products, including communication papers, specialty and packaging papers and adult incontinence products. The foundation of its business is a network of wood-fiber converting assets. The majority of its pulp production is consumed internally to manufacture paper and consumer products. In 2012 Domtar had sales of $5.5 billion in nearly 50 countries, and it employs approximately 9,300 people.