After cellulose, lignin is the most abundant plant-derived polymer in nature. It provides mechanical support to plants, but it has also a defense role against pests and diseases, thanks to antioxidant, bactericidal, and antifungal properties, deriving from its polyphenolic nature. Huge quantities of technical lignins are obtained during several industrial processes and they actually represent a waste of paper pulp and bioethanol industry. Although in the last decades many efforts have been directed to obtain lignin valorization in several fields and for diverse applications, this biobased polymer is still largely underutilized. In particular, very little is known about the possibility to exploit its antioxidant, antifungal, and antibacterial properties in the agronomical field. On the other hand, pest control is often achieved by using copper-based pesticides, but environmental and health issues urge for novel solutions implying reduced copper content. We here describe novel hybrid organic-inorganic materials obtained by combining copper(II) salts with two types of technical lignins. Cu-containing materials (lignin@Cu) have been characterized by different techniques, including X-ray powder diffraction and transmission electron spectroscopy analyses, revealing nanocrystals of brochantite (Cu4SO4(OH)6) grown in the lignin matrix. Lignin@Cu was tested for its antifungal and antibacterial profile against a vast panel of pathogens of agronomical interest. Furthermore, preliminary tests on crops in a greenhouse were performed: lignin@Cu had better performances than a commercial pesticide based on copper(II) hydroxide on tomato plants against Rhizoctonia solani, indicating a great potential of these materials as plant protection products.
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