New insights into the structure and composition of technical lignins: a comparative characterisation study†
Detailed insight into the structure and composition of industrial (technical) lignins is needed to devise efficient thermal, bio- or chemocatalytic valorisation strategies. Six such technical lignins covering three main industrial pulping methods (Indulin AT Kraft, Protobind 1000 soda lignin and Alcell, poplar, spruce and wheat straw organosolv lignins) were comprehensively characterised by lignin composition analysis, FT-IR, pyrolysis-GC-MS, quantitative 31P and 2D HSQC NMR analysis and molar mass distribution by Size Exclusion Chromatography (SEC). A comparison of nine SEC methods, including the first analysis of lignins with commercial alkaline SEC columns, showed molar masses to vary considerably, allowing some recommendations to be made. The lignin molar mass decreased in the order: Indulin Kraft > soda P1000 > Alcell > OS-W ∼ OS-P ∼ OS-S, regardless of the SEC method chosen. Structural identification and quantification of aromatic units and inter-unit linkages indicated that all technical lignins, including the organosolv ones, have considerably been degraded and condensed by the pulping process. Importantly, low amounts of β- ether linkages were found compared to literature values for protolignin and lignins obtained by other, milder isolation processes. Stilbenes and ether furfural units could also be identified in some of the lignins. Taken together, the insights gained in the structure of the technical lignins, in particular, the low β-O-4 contents, carry implications for the design of lignin valorisation strategies including (catalytic) depolymerisation and material applications.