Characterisation of mass distributions of solvent-fractionated lignins using analytical ultracentrifugation and size exclusion chromatography methods

Yudong Lu, Lionard Joosten, Jacqueline Donkers, Fabrizio Andriulo, Ted M. Slaghek, Mary K. Phillips-Jones*, Richard J.A. Gosselink*, Stephen E. Harding*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Lignins are valuable renewable resources for the potential production of a large array of biofuels, aromatic chemicals and biopolymers. Yet native and industrial lignins are complex, highly branched and heterogenous macromolecules, properties that have to date often undermined their use as starting materials in lignin valorisation strategies. Reliable knowledge of weight average molar mass, conformation and polydispersity of lignin starting materials can be proven to be crucial to and improve the prospects for the success of such strategies. Here we evaluated the use of commonly-used size exclusion chromatography (SEC)—calibrated with polystyrene sulphonate standards—and under-used analytical ultracentrifugation—which does not require calibration—to characterise a series of lignin fractions sequentially extracted from soda and Kraft alkaline lignins using ethyl acetate, methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), methanol and acetone:water (fractions F01–F04, respectively). Absolute values of weight average molar mass (Mw) determined using sedimentation equilibrium in the analytical ultracentrifuge of (3.0 ± 0.1) kDa and (4.2 ± 0.2) kDa for soda and Kraft lignins respectively, agreed closely with previous SEC-determined Mws and reasonably with the size exclusion chromatography measurements employed here, confirming the appropriateness of the standards (with the possible exceptions of fraction F05 for soda P1000 and F03 for Indulin). Both methods revealed the presence of low (~ 1 kDa) Mw material in F01 and F02 fractions followed by progressively higher Mw in subsequent fractions. Compositional analysis confirmed > 90% (by weight) total lignins successively extracted from both lignins using MEK, methanol and acetone:water (F02 to F04). Considerable heterogeneity of both unfractionated and fractionated lignins was revealed through determinations of both sedimentation coefficient distributions and polydispersity indices. The study also demonstrates the advantages of using analytical ultracentrifugation, both alongside SEC as well as in its own right, for determining absolute Mw, heterogeneity and conformation information for characterising industrial lignins.

Original languageEnglish
Article number13937
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 6 Jul 2021


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