There’s a century-old adage coined by the paper industry that claims “you can make anything from lignin except a profit.”
Art Ragauskas has heard this maxim countless times during his career, and it gets him a little riled up every time he hears it. As the UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair for Biorefining, Ragauskas is channeling that ire into proving that the old saying’s time has come and gone.
Lignin and its companion sibling cellulose reside side by side in the cell walls of poplar trees, switchgrass, and the residues of harvested crops—materials known as biomass.
Cellulose, the fairer of the two, is a sugar-based polymer. It can be deconstructed and fermented into bioethanol, a renewable and carbon-neutral transportation fuel. But where you find cellulose, you also find its clingy and historically less useful cellmate, lignin.
Understanding the structure of lignin and devising profitable uses for it are top priorities for Ragauskas and his multidisciplinary research team.