Sugar-based biorefineries have faced significant economic challenges. Biorefinery lignins are often classified as low-value products (fuel or low-cost chemical feedstock) mainly due to low lignin purities in the crude material. However, recent research has shown that biorefinery lignins have a great chance of being successfully used as high-value products, which in turn should result in an economy renaissance of the whole biorefinery idea. This critical review summarizes recent developments from our groups, along with the state-of-the-art in the valorization of technical lignins, with the focus on biorefinery lignins. A beneficial synergistic effect of lignin and cellulose mixtures used in different applications (wood adhesives, carbon fiber and nanofibers, thermoplastics) has been demonstrated. This phenomenon causes crude biorefinery lignins, which contain a significant amount of residual crystalline cellulose, to perform superior to high-purity lignins in certain applications. Where previously specific applications required high-purity and/or functionalized lignins with narrow molecular weight distributions, simple green processes for upgrading crude biorefinery lignin are suggested here as an alternative. These approaches can be easily combined with lignin micro-/nanoparticles (LMNP) production. The processes should also be cost-efficient compared to traditional lignin modifications. Biorefinery processes allow much greater flexibility in optimizing the lignin characteristics desirable for specific applications than traditional pulping processes. Such lignin engineering, at the same time, requires an efficient strategy capable of handling large datasets to find correlations between process variables, lignin structures and properties and finally their performance in different applications.
- crystalline cellulose
- lignin valorization