Lignin-based biodegradable water- resistant coating technology

Almost ten years ago QUT researchers, Albert Tietz and Adjunct Professor Les Edye, were seeking to find potential applications for the by-products of sugar processing when they discovered an environmentally friendly coating formula that could be applied to paper and cardboard to make it water resistant.

QUT Technical manager, Mr Albert Tietz said that about 400,000 tonnes of cardboard end up in landfill each year because conventional cardboard packaging is typically coated with petrochemical-based wax or plastic to render the cardboard water resistant; for example, takeaway cups are not biodegradable because they are coated with plastic to prevent the hot liquid from destroying the cardboard.

The biodegradable formula, was based on the natural molecule, lignin, which is a naturally occurring by-product that can be extracted from pulped wood and plants, resulting in a renewable, recyclable and cost-effective coating.

The QUT researchers saw a potential to formulate an innovative environmentally friendly product from lignin for the 6.5 billion dollar specialty-paper market to replace petrochemical sealants.

“We had a product that we thought was pretty good – and appeared to meet a clear industry need. The issue was – what do we do now? As a scientist, I feel at home within the lab or with my academic colleagues – but the commercialisation process was completely new – and it was a bit hard to determine where to start,” said Albert Tietz, “This was where QUT bluebox was able to assist.”

The project still had a long development path ahead to get the formulation ready for industrial-scale application and commercialisation.

The QUT lignin coating technology potential application is targeted at the packaging and industrial papers sector of the coatings and formulations market. The Australian paper and paper board market produces in excess of 2 million tonnes per annum. Worldwide, specialty chemicals for the paper industry is worth $16 billion per annum with nearly 50% of the market residing in Japan and North America.

QUT bluebox began working with the researchers in 2012 to progress the idea to a commercially-valid product.

The research team were initially awarded $100 000 in proof-of-concept funding in 2012 for work to modify, refine and test the formulation, which led to QUT bluebox filing a patent application to protect the intellectual property, and awarding further funding to continue developing the formulation and to trial the coating with a number of cardboard manufacturers.

“The IP protection process was completely handled by bluebox – everything from invention disclosures and patent attorney meetings – to determination of the correct commercialisation strategy – i.e. patenting the innovation or leaving it as a trade secret. These procedures can be quite expensive and all the costs were handled direct by bluebox and did not come out of our project funding,” explained Albert Tietz

QUT bluebox then engaged a paper-coating industry leader to carry out an initial screening assessment of the coated papers including tours of their production facilities, a pallet of typical commercial board products used with barrier coating applications, and samples of the current commercial barrier coatings. The researchers were then able to replicate the commercial process and collect reference data on how well their own coating formulations compared with coatings currently in use.

A paper-coating industry leader confirmed through independent testing that the waterproof property of QUT lignin-treated paper was comparable to the current industry standard although using thicker coating weights. Interestingly, this testing revealed a 30% improvement in the mechanical strength – critical in applications such as food storage boxes.

A 30% improvement is of great significance to the industry as their existing coatings do not offer any improvements in the mechanical strength of the paper/cardboard.

“Finally the proof-of-concept funding mechanism enabled us to progress from laboratory scale to commercial scale production of the formulation and achieve a full scale trial using industry equipment,” said Albert Tietz.

After working closely with the QUT researchers for two years and providing more than $250,000 in proof-of-concept funding to develop and scale the coating for industry testing, QUT bluebox secured further funding in 2014 for industrial-scale trials from an Australian-based private equity firm Black Sheep Capital.

The formulation then underwent a number of real-world trials, including on fruit boxes in the Northern Queensland banana-growing region, and prefabricated honeycomb panels used in the construction industry, leading to further optimisation of the coating formulation.

In 2016, the project received a further $150 000 from an Accelerating Commercialisation grant application administered by the Australian Federal Government – AusIndustry. This funding was matched by QUT bluebox’s Go-to-Market fund and enabled continued testing of the formulation in industry trials. During this testing phase, the researchers were able to test their barrier coating formulation in a variety of applications in the food contact and food packaging areas as well as integrate and optimise the process within commercial packaging plants.

QUT bluebox’s involvement included analysing potential markets, comparing competing technologies, and pursuing commercialisation pathways through engagement of product end-users (potential licensees). Consideration was given to licence formulation and coating methodology to large paper/cardboard manufacturers; alternative licence formulation composition manufacturers; and potential for royalty on amount of lignin-formulation used.

In 2017 – the culmination of years of extensive development, testing and collaboration – the successful technology was licenced to both Chemcolor and Leaf Resources. Chemcolor acquired the licence for Australia and New Zealand, and Leaf Resources acquired the licence for Canada, US, Brazil and Malaysia.

The prospects for the QUT lignin-coating innovation to significantly replace environmentally damaging coatings is increasingly promising.

QUT Bluebox assistance

  • I.P strategy and protection
  • Patent filing
  • Proof-of-concept funding
  • Secured investment from Australian-based private equity firm Black Sheep Capital
  • Submitted successful application for Accelerating Commercialisation grant matched by QUT bluebox’s Go-to-Market fund
  • Engaged industry leaders for industrial scale trailing & proof of concept
  • Commercialisation and business strategy
  • Licenced the technology to Chemcolor for Australia & New Zealand, and Leaf Resources for Canada, US, Brazil and Malaysia