Biobased materials and farming, travel companions!
With the 2020 French environmental regulations kicking in, biobased materials are looking livelier than ever across all sectors. Pulled by demand at one end, pushed by manufacturing at the other, stimulated by the farming world, biomaterials are shaping up to provide the market with integral offerings of competitive, effective solutions. We offer you a front seat view with Guillaume Delannoy, Design and Industrial Development manager at CODEM, a skill and knowledge transfer centre at the service of biomaterials.
Design and Industrial Development manager at CODEM
What’s the current state of the biomaterials offering?
Apart from timber construction—a huge subject on its own—biomaterials are gaining more and more traction in other aspects of building. There’s barely a day goes by without industry introducing a new low-carbon solution. The Neolife company has allied wood-flour with plastic to produce a handsome but tough wood-based composite for cladding. Some manufacturers are using starch to make plaster boards. There’s a seaweed-based paint (yes, it’s mostly water but the rest is definitely biomass). Then there’s Evertree, who has just launched a 100% crop-based glue for furniture and sustainable construction. Or how about good old linoleum made from linen (flax), or the hemp- and flax-based concretes developed by Bâtilin.
Despite all that, insulation is still where the lion’s share of investment in biomaterials is being directed. Solutions are proliferating. To give a clearer picture, we have published a guide that can be downloaded from our site (lien http://batlab.fr/guide-renovation-biosources/. It features actual tried and tested solutions and hopes to guide users in their choice.
How are things going in the setting up of a biomaterials value chain?
The crop-farming world is nourishing the development of biobased materials. Raw material manufacturers are teaming up with farming cooperatives. That’s how lime and hemp came together more than 30 years ago when hemp-based concrete was developed. Farming cooperative Cavac Biomaterials has developed its own range of plant-fibre based insulating materials, with growth levels that have caused it to build a second factory. We ourselves are assisting a partnership between a breeze block manufacturer and the farming cooperative COOPENERGIE in the scope of the BIP-COLZA project, a research and innovation programme funded by the French government’s energy and ecology agency ADEME. This project sets out to develop prefabricated building blocks made from rape straw concrete. Other investors cover the whole value chain. ACTIV PAILLE, to name but one, received an award in the EnergieSprong contest hosted by the BePositive exhibition last December in Lyon. The directors initially specialized in straw and hay infill for construction. They went on to develop a new insulation solution: an outer envelope that is passive-home rated, assembled from wooden cases containing 100% straw insulation. Activ Paille manages the whole value chain, starting with the collection of hay bales via a network of farmers and ending with the construction of walls both on- and off-site.
What’s the picture with the different material branches?
Flax and hemp are plants with a long history of cultivation for fibres. Their economic models are already well defined and their stakeholders have a largely industrial vision. Besides harvesting the seeds, farmers deliver the straw from the harvest to converters, who strip the fibres from the straw and convert the rest into granulate. Whereas the fibres are monetized through the traditional channels of textile and composite materials, the outlets for granulate are mulch and particle board. Since Hemp farming relies on monetizing the whole plant, building applications have been around for many years. As for flax, which is a more recent entrant, it’s the fibre—linen—that has the much higher value.
When we get to rape straw, the leftover of the canola harvest, everything needs building from scratch. Who collects the straw left lying in the field? Who stores it? Who converts it? Who buys the machines—the farmer or the future convertor? A whole value chain structure needs creating.
Should biomaterial value chains stick to a purely local level?
We’ve just completed a big study on the biobased sector, working collectively with the low-carbon specifiers’ cluster. One of the issues is the carbon footprint of biobased materials if the raw material has to travel the length of France to be used on site. The study’s conclusions are clear: the low-carbon gains from biobased materials will not be outweighed by the travel footprint. It is of course important for each region to prioritize its local resources for maximum participation in the circular economy, but that must not be a barrier to extending the outreach. Financial efforts must be concentrated in the right places. If it takes millions of euros to build a conversion factory close to the harvesting area, where’s the carbon benefit in that? The existing sectors are busy identifying strategic nodes between regions that can optimize value chains.
What stumbling blocks are biobased materials likely to run up against?
Uses are calling out for more and more carbon-free, healthier materials, notably from the standpoint of indoor air quality. But these materials come at a price and that’s a big obstacle to their development. Users are a bit reluctant to make the step. They wonder how much of their outlay they will get back when they sell their property. They could well find a fitted kitchen a more attractive investment. But it’s a drawback that should disappear once the sectors are able to step up production and thus bring the price down. Then there’s a second, psychological hindrance: the imagined fire risk from biomaterials. Preconceived ideas need dismantling. For example polystyrene is no less risky than straw but the risk is harder to picture. It’s the manufacturers again who are developing innovative solutions to quell fears. One way of doing so is to offer combinations that avoid a single insulation material by integrating it with plaster board. Since it’s the complete system that is tested, the fire resistance results are better and a lot closer to reality at the scale of a complete building. ADEME, along with the regions, must get involved and give a leg-up to the conception of solutions that have the regulatory and above all the insurance context baked in. The impetus is nonetheless real. When the 2020 French environmental regulations bare their teeth, things will soon change.
Find out more on CODEM/ Le BATAB