Vanillin is the main chemical compound of the extract of the vanilla bean. Nowadays, vanillin is mainly used as a flavouring agent, usually in sweet foods such as ice cream and chocolate. Did you know that 99% of the vanillin today does not come from the vanilla beans but is produced synthetically? It can be produced in different ways: from a petrochemical raw material called guaiacol, from wood, or from other biomass sources (organic material coming from plants). Today, 15% of the world’s production of vanillin comes from lignin (see our previous article on lignin), mainly by the Norwegian company Borregaard.
As the extraction of vanillin from biomass sources is one of the objectives of the Liberate project, let’s have closer look at this process. It all starts with the wood that is used to produce paper by extracting its cellulose. After extracting the cellulose, what is left is mostly Kraft lignin that, until recently, had little commercial value. Now, thanks to a complex oxidation process of the lignin structures, it is possible to extract vanillin from this lignin. The main advantage claimed by its producers is its much lower carbon footprint compared to its petrochemical counterparts.
Within the Liberate project, vanillin is obtained through an electro-chemical and thermal depolymerization process that oxidizes and breaks the lignin into small molecules. The objective is to extract 7% of the vanillin contained in the lignin, compared to a 2% efficiency yield with commercial technologies currently available. This major improvement will lower the production costs and open new doors for applications where vanillin is used as a raw material.
And as a last point, do you know why old books have this special smell? Because the paper is made from cellulose, which also contains some vanillin, present as a residue.