Sustainable waste repurposing company provides a low cost alternative to burning or burying industrial leftovers—and makes everything from paper to plastics and biofuels 

Lixea’s big idea started out small, in a test tube in London about five years ago. Later this year it’s going to get bigger, in a pilot factory in western Sweden.

© Lixia

Krisztina Kovacs-Schreiner, Chief Executive of Lixea

The company’s goals are bigger still. In the European Union and the United States alone about 100 million tonnes of wood waste — from paper mills, forestry, and construction among other industries — goes unrecycled every year. The chemists and chemical engineers who founded the company developed a way to break down that wood into its base components while also extracting harmful heavy metals that are often a by-product of processed wood.

“We will be giving wood waste a second life”, says Krisztina Kovacs-Schreiner, chief executive of Lixea. “The technology itself is a novel, solvent-based solution. Basically, we’re dissolving wood waste and separating it into its components, making something new out of them.”

Lixia’s “Dendronic process” was created by company co-founder Florence Gschwend, while working on her Ph.D. at Imperial College London. It uses ionic liquids to isolate cellulose, which can be used to make everything from paper to clothing to plastics; lignin, which can be used in other kinds of industrial applications, including biofuels; and the heavy metals in construction waste, which also can be reused. Anything that contains cellulose and lignin can be transformed using this process.

Aiming for sustainability

“This is the beauty of our process — it can break down any type of organic, bio-mass based materials,” including crop waste, Krisztina says. “And for most industries, these are a nuisance — waste that they either burn or ends up in a landfill.”

Lixea won a prize in the 2019 Social Innovation Tournament, created by the EIB Institute to promote creative environmental and social entrepreneurship. It has won several other prestigious awards and investments, including €2 million from the European Council Investment Fund and other funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

“We started out five years ago with one person and an idea, and now we are 10 people with over €4 million in the bank,” says Krisztina, who joined the company in March 2020 after more than 10 years in the bio-economy field. For her,

working with the team at Lixea is a chance to help make a mark in creating a more sustainable world.

“Without sounding very corny, it’s not like a calling, but it’s definitely something that excites me each and every day.”

© Lixia

Lixea is currently opening a pilot plant in Backhämmar, Sweden. It chose Sweden because of the size of its forestry industry —the plant will be using sawdust from nearby lumber mills for its conversion process.

“Tiny test tubes can deliver some really exciting results, but the real trial of the technology is once you start scaling it up, putting it in bigger vessels. It’s all about process development,” Krisztina says.

A circular system

Lixea is focused on making its process as sustainable as possible. The ionic liquids used to break down the wood and other woody materials can be recycled multiple times. “It's a closed system”, she says, “So nothing really leaves the process, apart from some water waste”.

The company would like to operate the plant for at least a year before building an even larger operation. Eventually, however, Lixea envisions licensing its process to local industries that could then handle their own waste on site.

“I would like to see many plants popping up and really processing wood waste locally,” she says. “We want to develop locally produced solutions for whatever is out there. So if it’s Asia, it’s rice straw. If it’s the UK, it’s wheat straw. In California, it’s orchard waste or wood waste. This would be our dream. To provide solutions to local issues”.