Source: KfW Stories
Author: Carmen Vallero Pictures: Jonas Wresch
Petroleum-based substances are hidden in almost all conventional cosmetics. The cheap additives make formulas soft and creams durable. But they are neither healthy nor environmentally friendly. The Hamburg-based technology startup Lignopure has developed an alternative with great potential – from the renewable raw material lignin.
Large white sacks full of lignin have arrived at Lignopure’s production plant in Buxtehude. It is reminiscent of pressed coffee grounds and smells a bit like damp wood. An inconspicuous substance. But it can help make many materials and products more sustainable.
Lignopure’s founder Joana Gil explains where lignin comes from and what it can do: “After cellulose, lignin is the most common biopolymer on Earth. It is found in varying compositions in all plants. Trees consist of up to one-third lignin. It is the natural glue that holds the plant structure together, which is why they can grow very tall. It also ensures that they are protected from UV radiation and bacteria, scavenges free radicals and makes them resistant to environmental influences. Wonderful properties that we should take advantage of!”
Lignin can be obtained from biorefineries. They process wood, straw or other plants and extract their cellulose to produce bioethanol. What is left over afterwards is lignin. However, since the refineries do not need it, they recycle it thermally, meaning it is burned. A valuable resource is thus lost, although this renewable raw material could be highly interesting for various sectors. For example, lignin can be transformed into bioplastics, replace tar produced from petroleum in road construction or be used as an insulating material.
The créme de la créme
Lignin is also unbeatable as an innovative additive in cosmetic products: It is naturally antibacterial and antioxidant, therefore supporting the anti-aging and skin protection ingredients in cosmetic formulations. The natural, complex tone of each LignoBase depends on the plant of origin and results in different shades, making it particularly well-suited for tinted skin color creams and makeup. The UV protection also makes the product highly interesting for use in sun care formulations. This property is particularly fascinating because lignin can provide an SPF-boosting effect to conventional filters and decrease some chemical filters, many of which are suspected to be carcinogenic or significantly influence hormone imbalances. What’s more, if the cream gets into water while swimming, the lignin particles responsible for sun protection sink to the bottom and do not harm the life below water nor the body of water itself.
Bioengineers Joana Gil and Wienke Reynolds conducted intensive research into these special lignin properties at Hamburg University of Technology. Together with Daniela Arango, they founded Lignopure in 2019. Their venture was supported by Hamburg’s InnoRampUp program. Since then, the team, which has grown to 12 people, has initially been focusing on the potential applications of lignin in cosmetics.
“Lignin is a great raw material, but it’s not exactly ready to use,” says Daniela Arango. “There are different starting materials, and they have to be prepared accordingly. The microparticles need a certain design in terms of size, structure and shape to make them suitable for cosmetics. In addition, there are the high regulatory requirements for additives in creams and other products.”
Patented secret of success
Lignopure is ahead in both areas. Its ready-to-use lignin, which is filled from a kettle into large bags, looks like a fine cocoa powder. The founders already have patents for both the sophisticated particle formulation and the manufacturing process in Europe and other countries. In the long term, they would like to license the technology to biorefineries so that their product can be manufactured where it is created. This would prevent transport routes and thus make production more environmentally friendly.
But the startup can not only supply lignin powder, “LignoPearls”, lignin in mini beads, are also in the works. They act as a substitute for microplastics in skincare, which are mainly used in exfoliation or scrubbing formulations, or as a “vehicle” for other components, such as flavors in products. Some manufacturers are voluntarily eliminating microplastics, while many initiatives are calling for a legal ban. When this happens, Lignopure will already be able to offer the industry a fully developed product.
The sails are set and the seed funding of 2.2 million euros will ensure the further scaling for this Hamburg startup. Established companies are currently testing Lignopure’s possible applications, and some companies are developing customized prototypes in collaboration with Lignopure. For Lignopure, cosmetics are not the end of the story – there are many other fields of application in the food and pharmaceutical sectors that the founders will focus on in the coming years. The newly opened production facility in Buxtehude is therefore likely to be just the beginning of more lignin in our daily lives.
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