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The Ultimate Eco-friendly, Multi-functional Material
One of the promising energy and material sources of the post

petroleum age is plant-derived biomass. This article looks at the
research of Mie University professor Masamitsu Funaoka, whose
research produced the new reusable material lignophenol from
Professor Masamitsu Funaoka

the organic material lignin found in trees. Miho Kawasaki reports. with a vial of his lignophenol

The Jomon Sugi, a large cedar tree located being from the time it sprouts and grows large
on Yakushima island, is thousands of years old. into a tree until it withers and dies. However,
Horyu-ji, a Buddhist temple in Nara Prefecture trees also have a photosynthesis system for pull-
built from wood, has maintained its original ing in CO2 from the air, so if you think of them
shape for over 1,000 years. The reason that wood, being a gigantic conjugate of precisely arranged
even after being cut, can maintain its shape for microscopic molecules, you can see they have
long periods is the organic molecule of lignin, another life cycle. That is, whether they are cut
which is contained in a trees cells, explains Mie down and processed, or after they wither and
Universitys Faculty of Bioresources Professor die, over the next hundreds or thousands of
Masamitsu Funaoka, who for many years has years, an amazing length of time, their state
been examining the ways in which forest re- changes at a molecular level, and they ultimately
sources can be put to sustained use. turn back into carbon dioxide. Petroleum and
Of the organic molecules contained in tree coal are very close to the final stage of carbon di-
cell walls, 70% are cellulose and hemicellulose, oxide. If the timber resources which contain lig-
which are plant fibers used for making paper, nin are put to good use, then they can be instru-
and 30% are lignin. Unlike the versatile cellu- mental in the post petroleum age.
lose, which is used as pulp and other products, Many researchers in the past have thought
an effective use for lignin was long undiscov- that lignin could be useful, but in order to extract
ered, so it was almost always discarded. lignin from wood, they used reactions with strong
Professor Funaoka says, It must be a sub- acids or alkalis, or applied high temperatures.
stance with incredible power, if it has survived However, it was a series of failures because this
on Earth for several hundred million years, often resulted in serious alteration of the lignin.
through environmental changes and natural se- Its a substance which was originally meant
lection. I always thought it was such a waste to to protect the tree by adapting to changes in
treat lignin like a nuisance and throw it away. weather and temperature, so by applying acids
In general, the life of a tree is thought of as or alkalis to drastically change its environ-

Highlighting Japan NOVEMBER 2010

ment, you suddenly alter it and it loses its are as hard as concrete. Yet unlike wood, in-
original properties. stead of cutting or shaving it, its possible to
So without using extreme chemical reactions, shape it freely just like plastic. It may even be-
and without harming lignins original properties, come possible to build houses without using
Professor Funaoka began searching for a method nails. It has excellent water resistance and sta-
to separate it from cellulose. What gained his at- bility, so its use in car bodies and other parts is
tention were phenol derivatives, which have a also anticipated. It was used as a material in the
high affinity to lignin and are acid resistant. body of Toyotas i-unit single-person vehicle
Feeling that he had discovered his key, during that was displayed at Expo 2005 Aichi Japan.
the 1988 summer vacation Professor Funaoka According to Professor Funaoka, Just like a
secluded himself alone in his lab away from stu- wide variety of materials such as plastics and
dents so he could concentrate, and began run- synthetic fibers derived from petroleum, ligno-
ning experiments. He found that after using a phenol can be used in a variety of ways too. If it
phenol derivative to surround and protect the can be made with petroleum, then anything is
lignin that is concentrated in the cell walls of possible. Though the material and shape are
wood, and then mixing in an aqueous acid and different, the molecular level properties dont
stirring it, the molecular masses separated, and change, so by re-dissolving lignophenol and
both cellulose and lignin could be separated pulp, its possible to use it over and over. It can
without damaging them. Since phenol deriva- be called the ultimate eco-friendly material.
tives can be used as a switch device, by combin- In 2001, Professor Funaoka constructed the
ing them with lignin, it was possible to control first plant for molecular conversion on the Mie
them at a molecular level, so it could be separated University campus to make lignophenol. In
or connected molecularly, combined into straight 2003, targeting business, the second plant was
chains, or made into small structures. He named built in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture for
this new substance made of combined lignin and proving tests by enterprises set up by several
phenol derivative lignophenol. private companies. Furthermore, the forest sys-
tem plant with key words Continuous, compact
Anything Is Possible and mobile is now working.
By using lignophenol, which maintains the Unlike petroleum which can be dug up,
properties of lignin that preserve lumbers transported and easily used, production of lign-
shape long after it has been cut down, and mix- ophenol from wood requires a lot of effort, and
ing it with wastepaper or pulp and allowing it to a lot of cost. However, the day will come when
harden, a new material can be created that has our petroleum resources are exhausted. So as a
the same texture as lumber. By changing the replacement, we must work on mass production
ratio of lignophenol to pulp or controlling those of lignophenol and development of a variety of
properties, the density and strength can be ad- applications for it.
justed freely, so its possible to make construc-
tion materials that have the feel of wood, but Miho Kawasaki is a freelance writer.

Highlighting Japan NOVEMBER 2010