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The Green Revolution Comes to Materials

“Inevitably, anyone using traditional composite materials is going to have to look at the environmentally superior alternatives. There will be a tipping point and one day…hopefully soon…flax and natural epoxies will be everywhere.”

natural fiber composites Photo courtesy of GREENBOATS

It seems like all the innovative energy on the planet is digital. All things digital are being “disrupted.” Real estate, dating, community awareness, banking and transportation, it’s all new. Much more quietly, the same revolution is happening in the world of materials. Few of us stop and contemplate what our cars, planes, houses or even medical devices are made of…but we should.

If we ever did stop to look around, say out of a new jet window at the wing, we would understand that composites are the materials essential to our lives. Composites are a combination of different materials that join their properties to create a suitable material for a certain application. Typical composites are a combination of a plastic core with a fiberglass or carbon surface. Since they are lighter than metal with equal or greater strength, their use has grown when applied to industrial, home, recreational and medical products. They are all around us all the time.

The Future Is Lightweight and Sustainable

Exponentially growing trends, like the electrification of transportation, are increasing the demand for high-performance lightweight solutions. As a consequence, composite and related industries are booming.

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However, one must keep in mind that the surge in demand for electric vehicles is the consequence of something even bigger: Our collective quest of becoming a climate-neutral civilization over the next three decades.

And while conventional composites are both cost-efficient and provide great performance benefits, they have a negative impact on the environment. But fortunately, alternatives are emerging.

Plastic Has No Soul

“From the age of six, I knew I wanted to become a boatbuilder,” Friedrich J. Deimann, the founder and CEO of GREENBOATS, told Worth. He started with an apprenticeship in wooden boatbuilding, and while he loved working with natural materials, he quickly realized that this was no longer state-of-the-art. Over the years, he worked in the yacht industry and learned everything there is to know about high-end processing of composite materials in vacuum infusion and prepreg processes, for example.

Founder and CEO of GREENBOATS Friedrich J. Deimann. Photo courtesy of GREENBOATS

Founder and CEO of GREENBOATS Friedrich J. Deimann. Photo courtesy of GREENBOATS

Deimann was fascinated by the new possibilities in terms of performance and the ability to reproduce components at low costs, but he could not imagine working with these materials for the rest of his life. “From the point of view of the worker, the materials required for the production are all extremely harmful to health,” he explained. “The fibers itch on the skin, the resin systems trigger allergic reactions in many craftsmen.”

Friedrich started his research into alternative materials and found evidence that natural fibers such as flax have promising mechanical properties. Inspired by the findings, he decided to quit his job and start a company that would combine the possibilities of modern composite technologies with the appeal and aesthetics of classic wooden shipbuilding. That was 2013—the start of GREENBOATS.

A New Category of Composites

Fast forward 10 years and GREENBOATS has completed 30+ projects using sustainable composites. Next to a portfolio of various motor and sailing boats, they are developing panel-based product solutions for the caravan and construction industries—from AUV deep sea vehicles that have tested their materials as deep as 18,000 feet below water, to offshore wind turbine nacelles, able to withstand winds of 150 mph.

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Most recently GREENBOATS has been commissioned by 11th Hour Racing Team to develop components made of sustainable materials for their upcoming Ocean Race campaign. Together with Marineshift360, GREENBOATS has been developing a tool that is measuring the environmental impact of their components over the entire lifecycle of the product.

Using these so-called life cycle assessment (LCA) tools in combination with their proprietary material database and advanced engineering software, GREENBOATS can quantify costs, performance and the environmental impact of a given product, already during the design and engineering stage. “With our process, we make sustainability visible,” Deimann said.  

The Flax27 Daysailer. Photo courtesy of GREENBOATS

The Flax27 Daysailer. Photo courtesy of GREENBOATS

Proof that these are not empty words is their Flax27 Daysailer with a price tag of $150,000; the 27-foot sailing boat is made from 80 percent natural and recycled materials and weighs less than 2,700 pounds. In other words, it comes at a competitive price, superior performance in terms of weight and incomparably better environmental credentials. According to Yachting World, the Flax27 is “just gorgeous” and comes with a lifting keel as standard, ideal for all those shallow draft waterfront homes.

Although most of GREENBOATS’ clients are still in the early stages of adoption, both bottom-up pressure by consumers and top-down incentives by governments will only increase the demand for sustainable lightweight solutions. With the overall composite industry accounting for a turnover of more than $100 billion, market observers will closely watch the subcategory of sustainable composites—a niche that is likely to even outpace the already impressive, predicted growth rate of the overall composites industry.

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Back on our shores, GREENBOATS is working with several individuals to move natural fiber composite (NFC) use forward in the U.S. Josh Summers is working with them to help market their expertise and connect them with interested parties. As Summers, put it to Worth, “inevitably, anyone using traditional composite materials is going to have to look at the environmentally superior alternatives. There will be a tipping point and one day, hopefully soon, flax and natural epoxies will be everywhere.”

We can only hope for that day—a future as a sustainable planet, using NFCs, as Deimann and Summers hope for.

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