- Chemical engineer Tshepo Mangoele recalls experimenting in his kitchen as a student to find ways to repurpose plant matter.
- He hit the jackpot when he discovered how to extract lignin, a substance in plants which can be used to make eco-friendly fuels and cosmetics.
- Mangoele has also found a way to make bio-coal – which can be used in batteries and Eskom could use it to feed its power stations.
A South African startup has developed a way to turn plant waste like sawdust and macadamia nut shells into useful, eco-friendly products such as bioplastics, fuel and even coal.
Tshepo Mangoele, CEO and founder of bio-manufacturing company LignOrganic, recalls how he would experiment in his kitchen to find ways to repurpose plant matter as a chemical engineering student.
This was sparked when in 2017, as a third-year student, he participated in the Jozi City Parks and Zoo competition, where the goal was to find a solution to alien invasive plants. His participation in the competition exposed him to the issue of plant waste, he explained.
Mangoele decided to find a way to turn plant waste into fibre packaging.
"In the beginning, I went and chopped off an alien plant, Lantana camara, using my kitchen knife," he told Fin24. Lantana camara is an alien invasive plant from South America. Mangoele shared how he would cook the plant in a pot and then blend it to make a paper that could potentially be used for fibre packaging.
Unfortunately, the South African market was not ready for fibre packaging at the time. Mangoele explained there were issues with getting the right machinery to process the plants in South Africa. But all his work was not lost because he discovered lignin. "Through all of that stress, I discovered that the black liquid that comes out [of the plant] is lignin," he said.
Lignin is found in the cell walls of plants. It is also a by-product of the pulping industry. It can be used to replace fossil-fuel based chemicals like petroleum, explained Nombeko Sikhosana, chief marketing officer for LignOrganic.
At that point, Mangoele decided to direct his energy toward extracting lignin from plants. The day he found out how to extract the lignin using an acid found in tomatoes, he was sitting on his kitchen floor. "That feeling I can't explain… it was just a fulfilling feeling to know that I managed to extract this thing [lignin]," he said.
From 2019 onwards, Mangoele moved his operations to the Wits Enterprise, where he could use a lab. That's when all the research and development happened.
LignOrganic now offers a range of products which can be developed using lignin. This includes the development of eco-friendly cosmetics and skincare brand O'Phyll.
Mangoele explained that as a "treehugger" at heart, he was trying to find ways for his life to reflect the work he does in saving the environment. Apart from following a plant-based diet, he has also been learning how to make eco-friendly products for his own use like soaps and shampoos, which are now being incorporated in the business under O'Phyll.
Other offerings include natural make-up brush cleansers and hand and face wash. LignOrganic has sent a sunscreen with a UV blocker made from lignin to the South African Bureau of Standards for testing.
The lignin-based sunscreen is not harmful like those which include toxins that can be damaging to coral reefs when they get washed into the ocean, he explained.
Mangoele said that LignOrganic is also working with Wits researchers to develop xylitol – a sweetener often used to substitute for sugar.
The lignin can also be used as an environmentally friendly polymer in paints and plastics, Sikhosana said.
The lignin is also used to make other bio-based chemicals like bioethanol - a fuel, and even bio-coal.
The bio-coal can be used for components in lithium-ion batteries – such as those used in the Tesla electric vehicles.
The bio-coal has a higher carbon yield which means it is an efficient and sustainable alternative to fossil-fuel based coal. Mangoele added that Eskom could potentially use the bio-coal, which has an 80% carbon content, 0.11% ash and 0.11% sulphur. "Which means when it burns, it leaves nothing behind… It is a clean-burning fuel which leaves no impurities," he said.
Mangoele explained that the Department of Science and Innovation had supported LignOrganic with funding.
Participating in innovation competitions like the GreenCape GreenPitch Challenge, where LignOrganic won the pre-growth category this year, also comes with monetary prizes. Through the GreenPitch Challenge, LignOrganic participated as an exhibitor at this year's Enlit Africa conference, a gathering of energy industry players across Africa. The conference is hosted in Cape Town over three days in June.
LignOrganic will also participate in the Eureka Innovation Summit held in Portugal later in June. It will be an opportunity to network and find market access for LignOrganic's products, Mangoele explained.
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