Company aims to replace potentially harmful synthetic ingredients in the chemical industry in consumer products for a sustainable solution, lignin.

Lignin is the second most abundant biological material on the planet after cellulose.

Scientists and researchers have tried to tap into the power of lignin for decades, but no one  has come up with a high-quality product because its chemical structure is heterogenous and difficult to work with. Until now.  

Chemical engineer and co-founder of Lignovations Martin Miltner aims to revolutionise the chemical industry by replacing potentially harmful synthetic ingredients in consumer products with a safe, sustainable solution made of lignin.

“We wanted to use those incredible functions that lignin performs in nature, and transform that into an industrial product,” Miltner says.

In 2016, Miltner, his wife Angela and another chemical engineer at the Vienna University of Technology, stumbled on a process to fractionise and standardise lignin, making it much easier to refine. “The form we convert the lignin into makes it very special. It’s the first of its kind on a global scale,” he says.

They patented the process and founded Lignovations in 2021, taking on a fourth partner with a business background. After raising pre-seed money, the company started developing products and building a pilot-scale plant.

What is lignin?

About 500 million years ago, when terrestrial plants first moved onto land, nature gave them a molecule called lignin.

Found in every land-based plant, from a blade of grass to a sequoia tree, lignin is a biopolymer that protects vegetation from environmental stressors such as sunlight, oxidative degradation, and bacterial or fungal attacks.

The biggest source of lignin is the pulp and paper industry, where the material is normally discarded by sawmills as waste. This means that lignin can be obtained without putting added stresses on the environment.

© Lignovations

Lignin after being extract from wood pulp.

“There is a saying amongst people in the pulp and paper industry that you can do everything with lignin except make money. I guess this was true until now,” notes Miltner.

Lignovations was a 2022 finalist in the European Investment Bank Institute’s Social Innovation Tournament, which recognises entrepreneurs who are making a positive impact socially, ethically, or environmentally.

Producing a chemical-free sunscreen

The company has chosen to focus first on high-value applications for end consumers, such as replacing chemical UV filters in sunscreen.

Even though people are told to apply sunscreen daily to protect against the harmful effects of the sun, numerous studies have raised concerns about the endocrine-disrupting effects of ingredients in chemical sunscreens, which remain in the bloodstream long after they are applied.

Many of the ingredients are derived from petroleum. What’s more, thousands of tonnes of these chemicals enter the oceans every year, causing coral bleaching and abnormalities in marine life.

One kilogram of lignin can replace two to three kilograms of conventional UV filter.

Lignovations’ lignin-based product has cleared safety assessments for normal and sensitive skin. It can replace UV filters in chemical sunscreens, protecting the skin from UV light and from aging due to oxidative attacks.

The product can also improve mineral sunscreens, which are safer and more sustainable, yet leave a sticky, ghostly film on the skin. “You can strongly decrease these mineral filters and add a bit of lignin, and you receive the same SPF value with a much lighter formulation.” Since lignin has a light brown colour, it can be used in tinted sunscreens, too.

© Lignovations

At first, lignin-based sunscreens will be more expensive than conventional ones, until the effects of scaling drive down the price.

Lignovations will soon finish construction of a production plant, to be followed by a larger one in about three years, when sunscreens made with its product can be more competitively priced. Lignin’s high performance will also help keep costs in check, according to Martin.

Scaling-up the business 

In addition to sunscreen, Lignovations is focusing on the coatings market, such as replacing chemicals in wood varnishes.

“With rain and wind, those chemicals are washed out to nature,” Martin says. “They get into animal and human bodies easily, and behave like hormones, interacting with the body in a very strange way.”

In time, the start-up aims to expand its scope to food packaging, dietary supplements −as lignin is edible and has antioxidant properties− and medical applications.

While Lignovations has a few competitors, the start-up stands out for the quality of its product, and for its production process, which is energy-efficient and uses no hazardous chemicals.

Currently, the company is producing and selling its proprietary ingredient to about a dozen small industrial pilot customers. As it scales up, it will partner with bigger companies, either through joint ventures or by licensing the technology. Lignovations will also provide support to customers, helping them to develop their own applications with its product.

Martin believes that by 2026, Lignovations’ cosmetics and paint products will positively affect more than five million people around the world. The impact will start on the beach, as the first sunscreens are set to appear shortly on store shelves in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.