What is lignin?

Most of the lignin used in manufacturing is extracted from wood.

Lignin is a complex organic polymer found in plant tissues. It performs a number of important functions in plant biology and also has a variety of industrial applications, making it a coveted product for some manufacturers. In nature, lignin is created by plants, and when they are processed for a variety of industrial purposes, lignin can be extracted for a variety of uses.

This chemical compound is found in the cell walls of plants. It binds to cellulose, another plant fiber with many uses, to make cell walls robust. The more lignin a plant has, the more woody it becomes; it provides the shape and form of stems, branches and tree trunks. In addition to providing support and structure, the polymer also helps the mother plant carry water and sequester carbon in the plant. After a plant dies, the lignin takes longer to decompose than the rest of the plant, slowly releasing carbon back into the natural environment.

For humans, wood with a lot of lignin has been recognized as useful for centuries. The longer a wood has, the stronger and stronger it will be, making it suitable for more tasks. Lignin also burns very efficiently, which makes heavily lignified woods like oak popular as a fuel. The substance was named in 1819 after the Latin lignum, meaning “wood”, referring to its important role in the structure and development of wood.

When extracted from wood and plant products, lignin can be included in a wide variety of things. It can be used as an emulsifying, sequestering, binding or dispersing agent, depending on how it is processed and what it is used with, appearing in everything from paints to road treatments. Many paper mills and wood processing facilities see lignin as a valuable by-product of their industrial processes, extracting it and selling it to other industries.

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Chances are very high that anyone has a product that contains lignin nearby, in addition to the obvious furniture and building materials. It appears in a wide variety of chemicals, from synthetic flavorings to textile dyes, and can also be found in a wide variety of industrial materials. People also consume lignin every day, in the cell walls of fruits and vegetables included in their diet. Most of what is used in manufacturing is extracted from wood, usually in paper mills, where the wood is shredded, pulped and treated to make paper, extracting the lignin it contains in the process.

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