Currently, valorization of lignocellulosic biomass almost exclusively focuses on the production of pulp, paper, and bioethanol from its holocellulose constituent, while the remaining lignin part that comprises the highest carbon content, is burned and treated as waste. Lignin has a complex structure built up from propylphenolic subunits; therefore, its valorization to value-added products (aromatics, phenolics, biogasoline, etc.) is highly desirable. However, during the pulping processes, the original structure of native lignin changes to technical lignin. Due to this extensive structural modification, involving the cleavage of the β-O-4 moieties and the formation of recalcitrant C-C bonds, its catalytic depolymerization requires harsh reaction conditions. In order to apply mild conditions and to gain fewer and uniform products, a new strategy has emerged in the past few years, named ‘lignin-first’ or ‘reductive catalytic fractionation’ (RCF). This signifies lignin disassembly prior to carbohydrate valorization. The aim of the present work is to follow historically, year-by-year, the development of ‘lignin-first’ approach. A compact summary of reached achievements, future perspectives and remaining challenges is also given at the end of the review.
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