“The thin, square dark brown object in my hands is, I am assured, made only from nettle fibre and water. Seemingly rock hard, it is a sample of Zelfo, a sustainable and versatile material that may soon become a household name.”, said Martin Ernegg.
The Genesis of a new Technology
Martin Ernegg is an Austrian materials science engineering graduate who after leaving university set out to tackle this discipline from an ecological standpoint. In 1988, a client expressed an interest in owning an environmentally friendly suitcase, and Martin went to work looking at various options. One was papier maché, which although largely forgotten today, was once an important global precursor to plastic. Due to its hardness, papier maché was once used by the Chinese to make armour.
However, the use of this material was constrained by several difficulties. Challenges included expensive moulds, long setting times, and time-consuming mould de-watering. Perhaps most importantly, three-directional moulding was found to be impossible. Not be deterred, he began a quest to create a pure cellulose-based material with high technical specifications.
After a year and a half, Martin had succeeded in obtaining a small quantity of what later became known as Zelfo. In 1993, he established an Austrian development company, and gradually improved the production process. This was later patented in 2000.
The unusual name Zelfo is derived from parts of the German words for cellulose and form. Influenced by the science of biomimicry and McDonough and Braungart’s “Cradle-to-Cradle” concept, it begins with a renewable plant feedstock. The range of cellulose fibre options for Zelfo include hemp, kenaf, flax, bagasse (a sugar cane byproduct), brewery waste, straw and recycled paper.
Industrial hemp in particular is a favourite choice. When looked at under a microscope, cotton cells are round, flax cells have some straight edges, but hemp cells appear to tessellate together in a resilient formation that underlies its toughness as a fabric.
Environmentally speaking, hemp grows well in Australia. It has the advantages of low chemical requirements, pest tolerance and relative water efficiency; dryland hemp currently under trial could become an important crop in Australia’s drought-stricken inland areas.
The Production Process
In addition to fibre and water, optional additives in the manufacturing process include a range of plant-based coloured pigments that, unlike conventional dyes, are non-toxic and free from heavy metals. No resins and glues are used, and the full range of colour choices is found on the Zelfo website.
In the absence of added pigments, colour is determined by the natural colouring inherent in the source material, and for this reason white fibres are used for achieving bright shades. Unbleached fibres have a better water resistance due to their higher lignin content.
Zelfo is made using a mechanical process involving pressure and heat, and all waste materials, including water, are fed back in a closed loop. The major production stages are fibre preparation, moulding, drying and finishing. In a unique moulding process, the sprayed fibres are adhered in a specific direction that adds to the tensile strength. While still wet, Zelfo can be textured, patterned, stamped or coloured.
Deliberate variations in processing can be utilised for a special effect. To give one example, the acoustic properties of drum shells can be changed through the use of lower density Zelfo on the inside of the cylinder and higher density on the outside.
The finished product can be drilled, sawed, and sanded like wood. A special technique enables polishing to be carried out easily, and ecological coatings are used to create a shiny surface. For those who desire, Zelfo can be painted, lacquered, glued, and have fixtures added. It is naturally flame resistant.
Meeting a Business Partner
For Martin, the missing piece of the puzzle was commercialisation.
Mullumbimby resident Paul Benhaim has been deeply involved with industrial hemp and hemp foods since the early 1990’s. At a trade show in Germany, he encountered a small stand run by Martin featuring about a dozen Zelfo items. Highly sceptical, Paul was unable to believe that they had all been created using nothing more than hemp and water. At further shows, disbelief focused his attention on this remarkable claim, if only to disprove it. Later, after viewing Martin’s factory and seeing some of the manufacturing process, he was converted on the spot.
Earlier this decade, their paths diverged for a while as Paul moved on to experiment with hemp plastic (a mixture of about 25% hemp and 75% petrochemical plastic.) In addition to the environmental ramifications of the high plastic content, another issue was hemp plastic’s relatively brittle quality. Neither performance nor cost had been properly factored in.
At around this time, Paul’s imagination was fired by a video clip showing Henry Ford attacking a hemp car panel with an axe, which bounced off without causing any noticeable damage. Although Ford’s special panels were made from a mixture of hemp and resin, and were therefore very different to Zelfo, the video spurred Paul to reconsider Zelfo’s properties, including its remarkable hardness.
Two years ago, once a decision had been made to locate manufacturing operations in Australia, Paul teamed up with Mitra Ardron, a consultant with a background in raising capital for sustainable ventures, to plan out the operations of Zelfo Australia. Late last year, in preparation for impending commercial production, Martin migrated from Austria to the Mullumbimby area to fill a role as the company’s technical director. A group of Japanese investors called WOM Pacific is providing
Ethical values are central to the whole project, and the new factory’s diesel engine and drying system will both be running on vegetable oil, a likely Australian first. (Investigations are already underway into the use of solar technology for drying.) While Zelfo Australia recently imported a stock of European hemp as a backup, it expects the main supply to be sourced from Southern Queensland.
In the Marketplace
At this stage, Zelfo Australia is in a position to offer small to medium runs, usually between fifty and a thousand units in size. Due to the absence of an economy of scale, larger multiples are currently uncompetitive with petrochemical plastics on a cost basis. For this reason, its main focus is on the designer end of the market.
With an emphasis on functionality and aesthetics, Zelfo works best for products with curved surfaces. So far it has been used for musical instruments, chairs, homeware, lampshades, toys, light fittings, jewellery and speakers. It lends itself to cabinets and cases, beads, and cone-shaped objects. An oval bowl was designed by Giorgio Armani, and in recent years a chair and an eco-coffin have won Austrian design prizes. A number of Australian designers are looking at high-end office furniture.
In terms of market positioning, Paul ranks the key factors as performance, aesthetics, cost and sustainability. Although environmental considerations are unlikely to play a pivotal role in a purchase decision, when two products are roughly matched on the first three points, genuine (as opposed to tokenistic) sustainability practices can provide an extra edge.
According to its creator, Zelfo has the greatest tensile strength of any known sustainably produced material, ranging between five thousand and ten thousand megapascals. With a wood-like feel, mouldable Zelfo has significant advantages over manufacturing from timber, which is often unsustainably sourced, necessitates significant waste and often requires time-consuming manufacturing processes that may involve toxic glues and resins.
Another major industry, plastics, is characterised by several unsustainable elements, including high energy and water usage, and non-renewable oil-derived chemical feedstocks. Problematic outputs include toxic manufacturing waste byproducts, and garbage that can defy recycling attempts.
Paul encourages people to sensitise themselves to their human-designed environment, by asking questions such as ‘What are you sitting on? What are the forms around you? What are they made of?’ These questions may stir up awareness of materials, their aesthetic qualities, and their environmental impact.
While not strictly waterproof, Zelfo is water resistant due to the application of an ecological lacquer. It will biodegrade if immersed for days in soil or water, and can be disposed of with general garden waste. In a quest for a natural waterproof coating, Zelfo Australia is currently working with three companies, one local and two international. Waterproofing will expand the potential of Zelfo to take in products such as vases and outdoor furniture.
Other areas of Zelfo research include the production of high quality flat sheets, and the sourcing of an ecological foam (perhaps soya-based) for use in some ranges. A further project is to devise a ‘biodegradability scale’, in which an item can be designed to break down after a specified interval.
Promotional materials remind us that “Zelfo offers unlimited possibilities”, and the company’s plan is to make as wide a range of products as possible at the new factory in order to demonstrate what is possible and show the full range of potential applications.
To offer samples demonstrating use of the material, a small range of products such as didgeridoos (pictured), a designer bowl (pictured) and lampshades will be made available to the wholesale and retail markets.
The long-range strategy is to franchise the Zelfo concept by authorising the creation of small, easy-to-replicate factories around the world, each of which will be granted permission to make a specific product or range. The Mullumbimby headquarters will continue to offer contract manufacture to a worldwide market, while providing brand support. Through a marketing campaign around the name, it is keen to bring Zelfo’s unique properties to the attention of a global public ready for a breakthrough in sustainable manufacturing.
For further information download the Zelfo Brochure here.
Source: press release Zelfoaustralia.com, 2007-02-06.