June 4th, 2019

Source: Hamburger Abendblatt

Author: Hanna-Lotte Mikuteit

The industry is looking for alternatives to petroleum-based plastics. The founders of Lignopure have found a solution.

Hamburg.  What if the microplastics in your favorite shower gel no longer ended up in the ocean, but the beads were biodegraded in the sewage treatment plant? What if the adhesive tape used to mask wooden strips during painting work could be disposed of in the compost instead of in the residual waste? Or if everyday items such as a lemon squeezer or children’s games were made of a plastic substitute that doesn’t belong in the landfill? That sounds like the kind of three wishes you get from a fairy godmother in a fairy tale. Wienke Reynolds laughs. “Making gold from straw doesn’t work,” she says, “but we can make plastic from straw.” At a time when, in the face of ever-increasing amounts of plastic, the search for substitute products is becoming ever more urgent, perhaps that’s not so far apart.

Alternative for plastic-free future developed at Hamburg Technical University

Together with Joana Gil, Wienke Reynolds stands among complicated-looking apparatus in the experimental hall on the campus of the Technical University of Hamburg. Here, the scientists have developed their alternative for a plastic-free future. Instead of using crude oil as the basis for plastic production, they use biomass, mainly straw. And they are so successful with this that they want to turn the idea into a business model and open up new markets. Lignopure is the name of the start-up that has just been honored as one of three international founding teams with the Future Hamburg Award.

The name is lignum, the Latin word for wood. This is because the researchers’ basic material, known as lignin, is isolated from leftovers from the agricultural and forestry industries. “It is a renewable raw material, biodegradable and non-toxic,” Joana Gil lists the advantages. In addition, it is not edible and thus, unlike corn, for example, not a foodstuff. The biotechnology engineer is the driving force behind Lignopure. A good three years ago, the 30-year-old came to Hamburg to do her doctorate at the Institute of Thermal Process Engineering, having already worked with plant-based compounds known as biopolymers in her native Mexico.

“I saw the possibility of using lignin in the life sciences as well. The potential is great,” she says. Until now, the biopolymer, which causes lignification of plant cells and ensures the stability of trees, for example, has tended to play a shadowy existence, usually only being burned to provide energy. On a table, Wienke Reynolds and Joana Gil have set up more product ideas for their spin-off. In a small bottle is a shower gel with lignin-based particles, for an exfoliating effect. “The product is 100 percent bio-based and 100 percent degradable,” Gil says. Other ideas include using it as a dietary supplement to absorb unwanted oils from greasy foods for dietary problems or as a carrier material in the pharmaceutical industry.

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