Hot seat: Dr. Ing. Wienke Reynolds

Last updated on: 19 Jan, 2021

Ms. Reynolds, LignoPure was founded in 2019 as a spin-off from the Technical University Hamburg. How did the idea for the foundation of the company arise and what exactly is your start-up doing?

When using, for example, straw or wood in the production of pulp, chemicals or bioethanol, lignin always occurs as a side stream. Along with cellulose, lignin is one of the main components of woody biomass and the second most biopolymer in the world. However, so far, the lignin has hardly been used in high-quality products, but mostly been burned to provide energy. That is a shame, because lignin has many fascinating properties that can also be used in a targeted manner in products that we use daily, for example in the life science sector and innovative materials. This is exactly what LignoPure wants to achieve, by producing tailor-made lignin particles for cosmetic applications as well as individual technological development services

LignoPure was founded by a team of scientists and students from the Technical University Hamburg. The Institute for Thermal Process Engineering there has been active for several years in the field of 2G biorefineries. During our time at the institute, we discovered our passion for lignin, its versatile properties and uses. Joana Gil, co-founder and CEO of LignoPure, had the vision to use lignin in the life science sector and with our technology we can now realize this step!

What are the possible uses for your products and what are the advantages?

Lignin is a plant-based and therefore vegan raw material which already occurs centrally in pulp mills or biorefineries and could thus be used industrially. In addition, lignin is not competing with food, which is a crucial advantage in comparison to already established bio-based solutions. What distinguishes the lignin above all is its functionality!

In the plant cell, lignin acts as an antioxidant and as a UV protection, but also, for example, as a mechanical reinforcement in the form of a filler material. It is our goal to introduce these functionalities into innovative products based on the raw material lignin, which can replace fossil solutions in our daily lives. In composite materials it can be used e.g., as a flame and aging protection, in cosmetics as a UV filter or surfactant. Of course, not all lignin is the same, the various starting biomass and digestion processes as well as the processing of the material have a decisive influence on the final properties. And this is exactly where our expertise lies.

This means that lignin is much more than a pure bio-filler for optimizing the ecological footprint of a material, which does not mean that lignin cannot have a positive influence on e.g., CO2 emissions, even in comparison to other biobased solutions.

What challenges do you and your team face?

So far there have been only a few commercial applications of lignin, mostly in low-value areas. These lignins are sold directly by the pulp companies or biorefineries and are hardly processed. However, an efficient use of lignins in high-quality products requires a targeted selection of the lignin type according to properties, price, availability, etc., possibly even an individual preparation. As a B2B start-up, LignoPure, with its business model, is for the first time playing the role of a link between two process fields – the pulp / biorefinery industry and the processing companies that want to bring innovative lignin-based products to the market. Of course, this entails the development of completely new material paths and sometimes the creative use of established processes for new approaches – a path that is not always easy. You definitely have to show passion for the idea of using lignin in really high-quality products. But it is absolutely worth the effort!

Another obstacle to the use of lignin can be its characteristic brown colour. However, this is increasingly changing as consumers become more aware of sustainable solutions and new design ideas for ecological products. And in a number of products this natural shade is even an advantage.

Dr.-Ing. Wienke Reynolds is co-founder and CTO of LignoPure GmbH. She studied bioprocess engineering at the Technical University of Hamburg, where she did her doctorate at the Institute for Thermal Process Engineering in the field of biorefinery process development.