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Chapter 1

Lignin Chemistry, Technology, and Utilization: A Brief History

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Joseph L. McCarthy and Aminul Islam Department of Chemical Engineering and College of Forest Resources, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195

In 1838, Anselme Payen discovered that treatment of wood with nitric acid and then an alkaline solution yielded a major insoluble residue that he called "cellulose," and dissolved incrustants which Schulze later designated "lignin." Following Payen's initial experiments were findings on how to selectively solubilize lignins with either sulfurous acid or alkaline solutions to yield useful cellulose fibers. Klason, Freudenberg, Nimz, Adler, Hibbert, Kratzl, Tischenko, Nakano and others conducted pioneering classical organic chemistry research that revealed much fundamental knowledge about the chemical structure of lignins. The emergence of polymer concepts provided an additional framework that advanced understanding of the physical behavior and chemical nature of lignins. Although much is known about the biosynthesis of lignin, new information is still emerging. Lignins in wood are now known to consist of a family of phenyl propane type polymers in a variety of structural units in combination with carbohydrates. Lignins are widely used as fuels in paper making processes and are sold commercially in expanding markets.

Anselme Payen ( i , 2), a wealthy chemical manufacturer in France, first identified "cellulose" and le materiel incrustant or "lignin" in 1838 as separate components of wood "se compose de deux parties chimiquement très distinguées." This discovery was made about half a century after the French Revolution (1789). Since that time many thousands of scientific papers, patents, and hundreds of books, have been published concerning these two most important natural polymers. To date, about 10,000-12,000 scientific papers have been published (estimate by authors) relating to lignins alone. O f these, over six hundred are incorporated in this compilation and some will be briefly discussed. The impossible task of selecting the "most important" papers and books has been avoided by choosing works that serve only as examples of lignin research, technological applications and utilization activities.


© 2000 American Chemical Society

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3 The history of contributions to the lignin field is presented in seven arbitrary time periods and each of these is divided into three main categories, Chemistry, Technology and Books. Contributions are not presented in rigorous chronological order, but are arranged to provide easy reading. To facilitate the use of this history, Appendix 1 presents all cited contributions chronologically although the main text of this paper contains only part of the entries in Appendix 1. In Appendix 2, a list is presented of many of the important research facilities that have made contributions to the understanding of lignin chemistry. The authors deeply regret, and apologize to investigators at centers not reported. Examples of proposed lignin structures are included in Figures 1-9. Table I includes information on the frequency of linkages in these structures. Examples of these linkages are presented in Figure 10. To assist the inexpert reader, certain currently accepted characteristics of lignins are as follows. The term lignin refers to a family of heterogeneous biopolymers that contain limited branching and/or cross-linking. Lignin is assembled from coniferyl alcohol type monomers by enzymatic polymerization providing three-dimensional molecular architecture. It is amorphous, optically inactive and comprises usually about 20-40% of the mass of plant tissues in higher plants. Lignin functions in several ways. As a composite with cellulose fibers, it provides strength to the stem and the bole of higher plants and thus permits photosynthesis far above ground level. As a matrix of phenolic and aliphatic substances, it protects carbohydrates from attack by microorganisms and insects. It participates in a network of processes by which the organism conserves, recovers and reuses highly significant atoms and small molecules essential for cambial and cytoplasm functioning. For man, it is highly useful as a structural material, as a component of wood that must be removed to make paper, and as a potential phenolic raw material of increased importance as available oil and fuel resources are depleted. About 50 million tons of chemically separated lignins are produced annually throughout the world, of which about 1% is currently sold. The two main motivations for lignin product research have always been the vast availability of this chemical around the world and that it is an inevitable byproduct of the chemical manufacturing processes for cellulose and of pulp. Life of Anselme Payen. Anselme Payen (i,2) was born in January 1795 to Marc and Jean Baptiste Piere Payen, a distinguished scholar in science and law as well as an owner of chemical factories. Young Payen studied chemistry, physics, and mathematics in the Polytechnique in Paris. After his father's death, Payen, at the age of 25, took over full responsibility for the chemical factories. In 1835, he left active participation in industry and became Professor of Industrial and Agricultural Chemistry at the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures. Four years later, he accepted the additional post of Professor of Applied Chemistry at the Conservatoires des Arts. Both posts he held until his death in 1871. He published over 200 papers in major French scientific journals and ten books on subjects ranging from dextrans, sugars, lignin, cellulose, and starch, to plant and animal biology. In 1838, he published his paper (i) describing cellulose and lignin isolation. 1838 -1874 During this time, the existence of lignin was established. Nearly thirty years later the first industrial process for chemical pulping of wood by dissolving lignin and

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Figure 1. Proposed model structure of Spruce lignin by Freudenberg. (Reprinted with permission from ref. 362. Copyright 1968)

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Figure 2. Proposed model structure of Spruce lignin by Adler. (Reprinted with permission from ref. 423. Copyright 1977)

Figure 3. Proposed model structure of Beech lignin by Nimz. (Reprinted with permission from ref. 396. Copyright 1977)

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Figure 4. Proposed model structure of softwood lignin by Sakakibara. (Reprinted with permission from ref. 447. Copyright 1980)

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producing useful cellulose fibers was patented. Research on lignin gave indications of its aromatic nature. Chemistry. Payen's 1838 experiments (/, 2) revealed that wood contained a "cellulose" and an oxidizable incrustant which Schulze designated lignin in 1857 (8). Payen used a concentrated nitric acid solution to oxidize wood and then washed the residue with a dilute aqueous sodium hydroxide solution to dissolve lignin and other components. Using von Liebig's method for carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen determination, Payen was able to observe substantial differences between the wood and lignin. He also treated wood with concentrated sulfuric acid and observed a brown residue that is now known as Klason lignin. Possoz in 1858 (9) applied alkali fusion to wood. Erdmann in 1866 showed that this process yielded protocatechuic acid and pyrocatechol that he concluded originated from lignin. Technology. The chemical production of cellulose fibers began 1600 years after the discovery (4-6) of paper in 105 A D by Ts' A i Lun in China. During this time, plant fibers were separated by mechanical means and then screened to make paper. This process slowly spread around the world. In 1866, the first successful process for the chemical production of cellulosic fibers from wood was patented in the U.S. by Tilghman (11). In this sulfite process, a hot aqueous sulfurous acid solution was used to dissolve lignin. The process was improved by using bisulfites of calcium or other bases to create a buffer system. Ekman in 1874 in Sweden built and operated the first sulfite pulp mill (14) using this technology. In 1854, Watt and Burgess (7) proposed but did not commercialize a system to delignify wood using a NaOH solution at elevated temperatures. Chemical recovery was to be achieved by burning the spent liquor solids to obtain sodium carbonate that would be causticized with CaO. In 1870, Eaton (13) proposed the use of sodium sulfate instead of carbonate for makeup although this system was also not commercialized. 1875-1899 During this time, early studies on the nature of lignin and lignosulfonates were undertaken. Coniferin was isolated from cambial sap. Klason suggested that lignin was structurally related to coniferyl aldehyde based on elemental analysis. The sulfite pulping process was in operation and the kraft process had been patented. Chemistry. In 1875, Tiemann and Mendelsohn (15) isolated coniferin, a glycoside of coniferyl alcohol, from the sap of the growing cambial layer. Their determination of the structure of this compound gave early insight into the composition of lignin. Wiesner in 1878 reported the classic color reaction of lignin with phloroglucinol (18). At the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm (KTH), Peter Johan Klason (Gellerstedt, K T H , personal communication, 1998) pioneered Swedish lignin research. He taught at Lund from 1874 to 1887 as a Chemist and Docent (Assistant Professor) and at K T H as a "Laborator" from 1887 to 1890 and as a Professor of chemistrv and chemical technology from 1890 to 1913. From 1915 to 1923 he

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Figure 5. Proposed model structure of softwood lignin by Glasser. (Reprinted with permission from ref. 399. Copyright 1974) Larger copies of Figure 5 can be found on the next two pages.

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