National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)


For revolutionising biomass conversion technology.

Never before have humans been able to turn plant waste in its entirety back into something of value. 

Call it alchemy or the Midas touch, but young Tshepo Mangoele first knew he was onto something in 2017, lying on his kitchen floor, watching a chemical reaction in a glass beaker.

“I found a way of doing this dual lignin extraction — there’s lignin and it precipitates out with the carboxylic acid. I know it’s very maverick — like how I started doing this science,” says Mangoele.

As a nature lover, he at first saw this chemical reaction as a way to create something useful from the fibrous waste of alien invasive plants at Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo, for instance.

The lignin he precipitated in his kitchen is indeed very valuable, with applications in UV-resistant cosmetics, fuels, construction and agriculture.

Today, his company LignOrganic is the first sulphur-free lignin producer in Africa, and the first in the world to achieve ‘total biomass valorisation’. 

“In simple terms, this means taking plant material and being able to use every part of it,” says the 28-year-old Mangoele. 

He explains that typically, a company that makes paper from wood, for example, only creates value from 33% of the plant biomass. The rest is burned or thrown away as waste. 

Besides high-purity lignin, LignOrganic uses 100% of its biomass waste inputs to produce other products. This includes bio-surfactants used in their ‘O’phyll’ skincare soaps (ophyll.co.za), and lignin-free wood sugars.

“Our work is important as we are helping the world move from using fossil fuels to using more plant-based products,” says Mangoele.

He says the Department of Science and Innovation and the Technology Innovation Agency assisted with funding to get the company off the ground. LignOrganic also collaborates with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the University of Witwatersrand on research, and has established partnerships for industry trials.

“The next step now is building a bigger facility. We’re also increasing the team size and getting more investors on board. But the biggest challenge now that we are working on day and night, is to get distribution for our products,” says Mangoele.

LignOrganic won the Innovation Award for an SMME for innovations and their research and/or development for their contribution over the last 5 to 10 years. This award is sponsored, including prizes, by the National Intellectual Property Management Office (NIPMO). — ScienceLink

Read the special Mail & Guardian supplement about all the NSTF-South32 Award winners.

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