UK-based researcher gains European grant to fund work on lignin biomass production

Roberto Rinaldi FRSC, a senior lecturer in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London has been awarded a European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant to fund his world-leading work on lignin valorisation.

According to Imperial College, these highly competitive grants are awarded to “outstanding early career researchers” to help them consolidate their research teams, develop their “innovative ideas” and establish themselves as leaders in their fields.

The ERC grants are one of the top funding schemes available to researchers in Europe, and recipients must have an exceptional track record for their career stage. The ERC only considers world-class researchers who submit a research proposal of the highest standard.

Rinaldi’s work aims to develop new chemical technologies for the valorisation of waste biomass (e.g. agricultural residues, switchgrass, straw, etc.).

His research is centred around lignin, a major component of lignocellulosic biomass which is very poorly utilised despite making up around 20-30% of the mass of every tree or plant. In fact, it is released as an industrial waste of the paper and pulp industries and currently incinerated to generate electricity.

As an alternative renewable resource for the production of energy, chemicals, polymers and materials, lignin biomass has the potential to alleviate the current reliance on petrochemical sources with significant worldwide implications on environmental sustainability. 

Closed-loop system

Rinaldi has been looking into new ways of creating value in lignin biorefining processes by looking at the whole value chain system and using a beginning "beginning-to-end" approach for the route to economic viability in lignin biomass production.

Rinaldi said: “I am delighted to receive a Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council. The planet’s rapidly depleting fossil fuel reserves, combined with an ever-rapidly growing global population, has driven a need to find renewable resources to meet increasing energy and material demands. I hope this grant will help lead to some ground-breaking research in lignin valorisation, which will be critical in helping us transition to a renewable, bio-based economy.”

Roberto Rinaldi studied Chemistry at the State University of Campinas, Sao Paulo, Brazil and received his PhD in 2006. A year later, he joined the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung as postdoctoral research fellow where he became a Junior Group Leader in 2009.

In 2010 he received the prestigious Sofja-Kovalevskaja Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, allowing him to launch his independent research group and develop outstanding research on lignin valorisation. For his contribution to advanced concepts for dissolution and deconstruction of lignocellulosic biomass, he was awarded the Willi Keim Prize 2014 given by the Advanced Fluids Subject Division of ProcessNet (an initiative of DECHEMA and VDI-GVC).

He was appointed Senior Lecturer in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London in 2015 and he has since established a research group and published a number of papers in leading international journals including among others Angewandte Chemie and ChemSusChem. More recently, he was invited to join the International Advisory Board of the journal ChemCatChem and appointed Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

This story was written by Liz Gyekye, editor of Biofuels International and Bioenergy Insight. 

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