IRI and NSF award $500,000 to North Carolina State University

The Industrial Research Institute, in partnership with the National Science Foundation, awards $500,000 to North Carolina State University for Lignin Research


IRI program identifies pre-competitive fundamental research requirements for future success of U.S. competitiveness

ARLINGTON, Va., August 19, 2010  - The Industrial Research Institute (IRI) today awarded $500,000 to Dimitris S.Argyropoulos and his co-investigator, Elon Ison, of North Carolina State University for their research “Catalytic Oxidation Chemistry Aimed at Upgrading Lignin.”
Principal investigator Dimitris S. Argyropoulos is Finland Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, Department of Forest Biomaterials, NCSU.  Co-project investigator, Elon Ison, is Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry, NCSU.

IRI developed a program to bring together leaders in industrial science to identify pre-competitive fundamental research requirements that will ultimately have a direct effect on the success of American industry.  The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded IRI a $1.2 million grant to pilot the Industry-Defined Fundamental Research program. The program intends to allow participating companies to influence a scientific research agenda, in a pre-competitive space, by defining key questions and then partnering with universities and companies to explore them.

“The NSF grant enables the IRI to create a new and original method of developing a scientific agenda that could lead to exciting research areas that will benefit American industry,” states Edward Bernstein, IRI president.

As part of an intensive process, an IRI advisory panel conducted background research among a diverse industry cross section of IRI member organizations to identify issues and challenges industries face in which targeted academic research might identify possible solutions. Ultimately, the IRI advisory panel focused attention on two topics: Renewable Energy related challenges and Materials.

These topics were assigned to working groups headed by volunteers from IRI member companies charged with producing white papers in each area. These groups produced detailed discussions of complex research questions in their assigned topics. The white papers present a picture of the current state of the art in areas of key importance for U.S. industry, as well as for national strategic concerns and served as the basis for Request for Proposals sent to academic scientists.

Lignin offers a significant opportunity for enhancing the operation of a lignocellulosic biorefinery. It is an extremely abundant raw material contributing as much as 30% of the weight and 40% of the energy content of lignocellulosic biomass. Lignin’s native structure suggests that it could play a central role as a new chemical feedstock, particularly in the formation of supramolecular materials and aromatic chemicals.

The Department of Energy recently completed a study that suggests 1.3 billion tons of biomass is available annually in the United States. This amount of biomass could potentially produce 130 billion gallons of liquid transportation fuels (ethanol, mixed alcohols, green gasoline, biodiesel and green diesel). Significant new technology developments are needed to maximize production and capture the resources. Interestingly, the same resource is sufficient in size to supply virtually all of the raw materials now required for the chemical industry.

Lignin is the only renewable source of an important and high-volume class of compounds—the aromatics. It is easy to conclude that direct and efficient conversion of lignin to discrete molecules or classes of high-volume, low-molecular weight aromatic molecules is an attractive goal. As petroleum resources diminish and prices increase, this goal is very desirable, and is perhaps the most challenging and complex of the lignin technology barriers. Bringing high-volume aromatics efficiently from a material as structurally complex and diverse as lignin becomes a challenging but viable long-term opportunity.

The goal of the “Catalytic Oxidation Chemistry Aimed at Upgrading Lignin” project is to uncover the ultimate potential of catalytic Oxidation Chemistry utilizing the principles of Green Chemistry ( scCO2 ) when applied to lignins. This effort in conjunction with modern biomass/bio-energy saccharification technologies could form the foundations of a novel, environmentally friendly process for adding value to lignins in creating valuable aromatics and phenols.

“In defining these questions and connecting industry to academia in the search for lignin solutions, the Industry-Defined Fundamental Research program promises to have a measurable effect, says Ed Bernstein.  We expect this research will lead directly to a fundamental understanding of some problems common across industry and across companies. We anticipate that the development of new environmentally benign technologies will add value to lignin streams, open new markets and strengthen industry’s competitiveness.”


About IRI
The Industrial Research Institute is an organization of some 200 industrial, service companies and federal laboratories having common interest in the effective management of technological innovation. IRI member companies invest nearly ½ of the total R&D dollars of the nation's privately funded effort. These organizations, spanning diverse industries, generate over $2 trillion in annual sales, representing a substantial portion of our nation’s gross domestic product. The IRI is the only cross-industry organization creating innovation leadership solutions and best practices in innovation management developed through collaborative knowledge creation. For more information, call 703.647.2580 or visit

About NSF
The National Science Foundation (NSF),, is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2010, its budget is about $6.9 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives over 45,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes over 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards over $400 million in professional and service contracts yearly.