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"Cradle-to-Cradle is a naive concept; raw materials that are 100% recyclable are more likely to be an exception than the rule. Switching to renewable (bio)materials is the only way to avoid exhausting earth’s resources. However, consumers will only adopt these materials if they can identify with their aesthetics and quality.”
Pierre Gielen

This according to Jörn Behage, economist and designer at Ekkehart. For decades he has been focusing on sustainable product development and uses biomaterials wherever possible. He works on his latest creations in the Brightlands Innovation Factory in Geleen: high end interior design products for the consumer market, such as desk lights. These are manufactured from self-reinforced biocomposite; a mono-material in which both the matrix and the fibres consist of different types of PLA. These varieties have different properties, such as temperature resistance, tensile strength and impact toughness. “The fact that this composite can be fully recycled to a mono-material makes this material innovative.”

Melting car interior

Behage started in the packaging and transportation industry twenty years ago. He designed light-weight compostable pallets for air freight transport and also fully compostable glasshouse contents, from substrate mats and clips to ropes and labels. And a complete interior for cars made of biocomposites. There was one major drawback: these materials would melt in the sun or were not UV resistant. Since then, bioplastics have improved to such an extent and become so much cheaper that Behage thinks that they are a viable alternative to non-renewable raw materials, including metals.

“In about 30 to 50 years we face being confronted with the exhaustion of a whole range of elements. This will happen sooner than we realise at the moment. Metals also cannot be completely recycled without some loss of quality, because they consist of alloys or losses occur during production and use. Instead of focusing only on recycling, it would be better to ask yourself whether you can replicate these properties with a new generation of materials.”

Better performance

According to Behage, the key to success in such cases is ensuring that the new biomaterials perform better than the materials currently available on the market. “This was not sufficiently acknowledged for a long time. This requires a shift in thinking, bringing forward very different properties. That is when it becomes interesting to me and I can really use the knowledge that I have. Particularly in the high-end segment. If consumers understand that these materials are good and beautiful and so are suitable for decorating your home, then this results in an emotional connection to biomaterials that is mostly lacking in other market segments, such as packaging. This results in a market pull.”

In the Brightlands Innovation Factory, Ekkehart BV works together with – among others – the Aachen-Maastricht Institute for Biobased Materials to spin and weave the PLA yarns that make up the composite. The next phase of the development is production on a laboratory scale. A pilot plant is expected to be built at Chemelot in 2019.

“The Brightlands Chemelot Campus is a perfect ecosystem for me. There is a lot of knowledge available, both in the scientific field and in the field of entrepreneurship and the production of technical components. It is easily accessible and this works really well. Another important factor is that all these people around me also have their own network. If you want to accelerate a development process, then this is an ideal situation.”

This article was created in cooperation with Source B