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Development of a process to valorise lignin

  • Full or part time
    Dr L Horsfall
    Dr D Clarke
  • Application Deadline
    Friday, April 26, 2019
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

When fossil fuel reserves are exhausted, essential by-products of refining will no longer be available. Since these aromatic chemicals are used in many processes including the manufacture of plastics, detergents, fertilisers, pharmaceuticals and synthetic fibres it is vital that alternative sources become available. Lignin can be produced sustainably, it is renewable and a natural form of carbon storage. Importantly for this proposal, it is a complex polymer made of aromatic chemical building blocks, potential replacements for aromatic oil-refining by-products. However, to utilize lignin as a feedstock, the development of an efficient process that enables its specific depolymerization is necessary. The use of enzymes is generally considered the best approach to provide controlled lignin degradation1 and this project seeks to integrate previous enzymatic degradation work conducted by the Horsfall group with the pretreatments that allow cost effective manufacturing of aromatic feedstock chemicals from Sikta Spruce sawdust. Sitka spruce is the main productive conifer species grown in Scotland, it is a fast growing and high yielding conifer with a lignin content of 19.8 - 29.4% w/w. Annual production is currently ~6.3 million and is forecast to rise to 9.3 million by 2027.
This studentship seeks to test combinations of enzymes alongside established pretreatments to optimise lignin degradation. It will assess process efficacy through the use of assays and mass spectrometry, with iterative cycles of trial and improvement on the process. The disruption of lignocellulosic biomass to access cellulose and hemi-cellulose for biofuels has long been prioritised over the degradation of lignin to useful feedstock chemicals. As such, harsh pre-treatments with acids and alkalis or energy-intensive high-temperature and pressure conditions have produced recalcitrant lignin waste of little value. The development of a new process, which prioritises the valorisation of lignin, may also provide access to cellulose and hemi-cellulose without creating such waste and thus contribute to a more circular bioeconomy.

Funding Notes

This is a 4 year fully funded studentship and is supported by the Forestry Commission Scotland, the BBSRC and the IBioIC. It will include a minimum 3 month placement in industry and exceptional training opportunities, in both transferable and technical skills, through the IBioIC.

Application Deadline: 26 April 2019

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1) Furukawa T, Bello FO, Horsfall L. Microbial enzyme systems for lignin degradation and their transcriptional regulation. Frontiers in Biology (2014) 9(6): 448-471.
2) Echavarri-Bravo V, Tinzl M, Kew W, Cruickshank F, Mackay CL, Clarke DJ, Horsfall LE. High Resolution Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spectrometry (FT-ICR MS) for the characterisation of enzymatic processing of commercial lignin. New Biotechnology (accepted 2019, available soon).
3) Jarrell, T. M., Marcum, C. L., Sheng, H., Owen, B. C., O'lenick, C. J., Maraun, H., Bozell, J. J. & Kenttamaa, H. I. 2014. Characterization of organosolv switchgrass lignin by using high performance liquid chromatography/high resolution tandem mass spectrometry using hydroxide-doped negative-ion mode electrospray ionization. Green Chemistry, 16, 2713-2727.

How good is research at University of Edinburgh in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 109.70

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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