Automated Transformation of Lignin Topologies into Atomic Structures with LigninBuilder

Joshua Vermaas, Gregg Beckham, Michael Crowley, Lauren Dellon, Linda Broadbelt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus Citations


Lignin is an abundant aromatic heteropolymer found in secondary plant cell walls and is a potential feedstock for conversion into bioderived fuels and chemicals. Lignin chemical diversity complicates traditional structural studies, and so, relatively little experimental evidence exists for how lignin structure exists in aqueous solution or how lignin polymers respond to changes in their chemical environment. Molecular modeling can address these concerns; however, prior computational structural lignin models typically did not capture lignin heterogeneity, as only a few polymers were considered. LigninBuilder creates a framework for building structural libraries for lignin from existing topological libraries, permitting significantly greater diversity of lignin structures to be sampled at atomic detail. As a demonstration of its capabilities, LigninBuilder was applied to three libraries of lignin from hardwood, softwood, and grass, and the resulting polymer structures were simulated in an aqueous environment. The lignins adopted compact globular structures, as would be expected for polymers in poor solvents. The differences between the libraries were largest when quantifying the packing of nonadjacent aromatic residues, with greater branching within the polymer resulting in poorer aromatic packing. Individual lignin polymers were also found to undergo rapid conformational changes, with the dwell time within a state growing as the square of the molecular weight. This first application of LigninBuilder demonstrates the potential for atomic-level insight into lignin interactions. LigninBuilder is distributed as a plugin to the visualization software VMD, lowering the barrier for modeling lignin structure in diverse environments.
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)3443-3453
Number of pages11
JournalACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2019

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-2700-72983


  • atomic structure
  • lignin modeling
  • molecular dynamics
  • polymer power laws


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