Lignin leads the way – World’s first lignin bio-asphalt road, lignin’s array of applications and more

June 6, 2021 |

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less travelled by.” Robert Frost

Let’s say there are 2 roads – one a traditional fossil-fuel based asphalt road and the other a biobased lignin asphalt road. Which one would you take? We know you can make almost anything out of lignin, so why not a road? And that’s just what happened in the Netherlands with the world’s first test road made from bio-asphalt with lignin. This lignin – fully plant-based and produced by Avantium – is used as a substitute for bitumen in asphalt, which is derived from crude oil.

In today’s Digest, all about the new bio-road, the tech behind it, lignin’s markets, applications, tech and other recent lignin news making us look at it in a new way, and more.

World’s first bio-asphalt road

Let’s start with the big news and world’s first – Infrastructure company Roelofs started construction of the world’s first test road made from bio-asphalt with Dutch lignin. The fully plant-based lignin is produced by Avantium and is used as a substitute for bitumen in asphalt, which is derived from crude oil.

In collaboration with the province of Groningen, the 250-metre-long lignin-based test section is being constructed in the north of the Netherlands, on the N987 between Siddeburen and Wagenborgen. This test road is part of the CHAPLIN XL project, a collaboration of industrial and academic parties aiming to demonstrate that lignin as bitumen replacement works effectively at scale and leads to a significant CO2 reduction of road construction.

The CHAPLIN XL (Collaboration in aspHalt Applications with LIgniN) project members comprise academic and industrial organisations. Project members are Avantium, Roelofs Groep, Utrecht University, Wageningen Food & Biobased Research, Asfalt Kennis Centrum, H4A Infratechniek and Stichting Biobased Delta. The Netherlands Enterprise Agency (Rijksdienst voor Ondernemend Nederland – RVO) awarded the CHAPLIN XL project with a €1.5 million grant in 2020.

How?

Bitumen is the traditional binder in asphalt, but can be replaced by lignin. The binding properties of lignin in asphalt are extensively tested in the lab and the results look very good. Lignin in asphalt is also already used for the construction of a cycle path in Wageningen, the Netherlands. This was three years ago and the path is still in good condition. One difference with bitumen is that it is liquid when added to the asphalt, whereas lignin is a powder that is added at the asphalt plant.

In its DAWN pilot biorefinery in Delfzijl (the Netherlands), Avantium converts woody feedstock into industrial sugars and lignin. Lignin can be used for energy generation, but is also suitable for many higher value applications such as for bio-asphalt. In total, about 1,000 kg of Avantium lignin was added to the asphalt to replace a portion of the bitumen used in the production of the top layer of the test section on the N987. The DAWN biorefinery has been made possible with a financial contribution from the province of Groningen.

The asphalt producing partners of CHAPLIN XL have improved the process to produce bio-asphalt at conventional asphalt plants, allowing for the scale-up of the lignin-based asphalt technology. Avantium closely collaborates with Roelofs, who has the ambition to transition to bio-asphalt.

Here are highlights from Avantium’s 2020 Annual Report – FDCA, PEF, PlantMEG, Sugars, Lignin: The Digest’s 2021 Multi-Slide Guide to Avantium where you can find out more about their technologies.

What’s next?

Roelofs will also construct a second test section on the N987 with conventional Kraft lignin from a Finnish paper mill.

The CHAPLIN XL partners will analyse the lignin-based test road on performance, on techno-economic feasibility and on environmental benefits through a life cycle assessment (LCA). Preliminary results of this LCA indicate that lignin-based asphalt allows for a substantial reduction of the carbon footprint compared to its fossil-based counterpart.

Results show that based on 8 million tonnes of new asphalt in the Netherlands annually and an analysis of the complete life cycle, there is a CO2 reduction of approximately 200,000 tonnes. This depends, however, on which layers in the asphalt are replaced, which type of lignin is used and which calculation method is used. In addition to being plant-based, lignin in asphalt can be processed at lower temperatures compared to bitumen (140 degrees Celsius instead of 170 degrees Celsius), which also saves energy.

Reactions from the stakeholders

Annelie Jongerius, senior scientist at Avantium responsible for the valorisation of lignin, said, “We are excited to showcase the potential of our lignin for the production of bio-asphalt. It is a great example of realising Avantium’s mission to replace fossil-based chemicals and materials with renewable alternatives.”

Gerard Hoiting, managing director at Roelofs, is pleased with the collaboration and said, “As a company we have the ambition to be climate neutral in 2030. Not only internally, but also with clients and partners we look for innovations and concrete applications and inspire each other towards a better world. This collaboration is a great example of this.”

Martin Junginger, professor Biobased Economy at Utrecht University and project coordinator of CHAPLIN XL, said, “For the wide application of lignin in road construction in the future, it is necessary for road constructors to be able to provide financial, technical and environmental validation of bio-asphalt in tenders. We also notice that there is high international interest from road constructors for our test results”.

IJzebrand Rijzebol, member of the Provincial Executive for Groningen, is pleased that the innovative test road is being built on the N987 near Groningen Seaports and Chemiepark Delfzijl. The production of the bio-asphalt will also take place in Groningen, at Asfalt Production Westerbroek (APW) in Westerbroek. The Chemport Europe ecosystem in the Dutch northern region is known as a leader in green chemistry and in reducing CO2 emissions. “The northern region of the Netherlands has high ambitions to move away from fossil resources and to transition to a circular economy also based on regional available resources such as sugar and wood residues. The CHAPLIN XL partners share this ambition and the bio-asphalt test road therefore fits well with our goals”.

Why is lignin so hot right now?

If you want to take a peek into why lignin, what the newest tech and applicationsare, where the markets and key players are, and more, check out this slide guide from Jack Miller of Biobased Markets which takes us right into the pages of a new comprehensive study – Tech, Markets, Apps, Key Players: The Digest’s 2021 Multi-Slide Guide to Lignin 2021.

You can also check out MetGen’s Enzymatic Lignin Fractioning & Refining: The Digest’s 2021 Multi-Slide Guide to MetGen here to get a look at what’s behind their inspiration, the bioprocessing tech behind next gen biorefineries, how to de-bottleneck a biorefinery, the possibilities with enzymatic lignin refining, their commercial road map, and more.

Check out this slide guide – From Co-Product Lignin to Biodegradable Polyurethanes: The Digest’s 2020 Multi-Slide Guide to Lignin Valorization – that dives into the basic polyurethane chemistry, how lignin-based polyurethanes are made, pretreatment, structural changes, the latest work from 3 research organizations on this hot topic, and more.

And let’s not forget about all the research that has been happening this year on lignin, like this groundbreaking research into white-rot fungi that proves its value in carbon sequestration from lignin done by scientists at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) or this research in France that found that microbes from the guts of certain termite species can help break down lignin, which can be super helpful for applications in lignocellulose biorefineries.

Bottom Line

Lignin – you can make almost anything out of it and money, it has a wide array of applications like the latest world’s first bio-asphalt road, it is relevant to many markets, and it’s a way to get into a more circular economy. So let’s convert the road less traveled to the road more traveled by getting biobased innovations more mainstream.

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