Nicola's work on lignin based amphiphilic polymers finally out!
One of the ideas I had, when I started my position as assistant professor, was to find ways to make more sustainable amphiphilic polymers. This kind of polymers (you can also call them polymeric surfactants) can find application in many important fields, such as medicine, agriculture, electronics, and oil industry. Especially in our times, the search for more sustainable materials is very relevant, therefore trying to make biobased amphiphilic polymers sounded like a good idea.
I have been working on amphiphilic polymers for a while, and I knew that more sustainable ones can be made, for example, from polysaccharides. Since polysaccharides are hydrophilic, the trick is to add some hydrophobic groups to them, and there you have an amphiphilic polymer. I did some work in that direction (that I hope to publish soon), but this is another story.
My colleague next door, Peter Deuss, has for some time been working on new mild methods of extracting lignin from biomass. Lignin can be a very good source of aromatics, which do not come by easily from other natural substances. As lignin is hydrophobic, you can turn it into an amphiphilic polymer by adding hydrophilic groups to it. This basic idea is not new, but one major issue is that the starting lignin is usually an ill-defined material, extracted from lignocellulosic biomass with harsh methods, that generally disrupt the native structure of lignin. So, using the milder approach of Peter, could provide better starting materials, with higher reproducibility and more defined structures. This could then allow to prepare lignin-based amphiphilic polymers, also with better defined structures, especially when the use of this starting material can be coupled with controlled polymerization methods, which I use extensively in my research. Better control on the structure, also means the possibility to tune the final properties, therefore having different possible end applications.
So, a couple of years ago, my PhD student Nicola and me started a conversation about this. In his thesis about amphiphilic polymers, he strongly wanted to go in the direction of sustainable materials, possibly with applications in the biomedical field, so it seemed to both of us a good idea trying to start a collaboration with Peter, and use "his" lignin as starting material for our amphiphilic polymers. For biomedical applications, it was important to test biocompatibility so, for this, Nicola made contact with Theo van Kooten, at the UMCG.
After a few experimental setbacks, things finally started to work out, and Nicola's dedication, hard work, stubborness and passion, plus the help of Peter and his PhD student Douwe, did the rest.
You can read all about it here below! In the supporting information there is also a "liveslide" presentation, if you are too lazy to read, or if you want to hear my recorded voice ;)