Enrico Benco, CEO, and co-founder of the Italy-based GS4C srl, in the interview to our website, spoke about advanced technologies and basalt fiber composites for Cradle to Cradle manufacturing, which they have implemented in the project of eco-yacht, the company is currently working on.
Enrico, your company GS4C srl («Go Sailing, for a Change») is engaged in the sustainable development, this concept includes zero landfill technologies, environment protection in all aspects. What is the mission of GS4C?
It’s all about Circular Economy. Our Mission is to research, develop, prototype and promote sustainable and recyclable solutions for the composite industry, fostering the growth of a network of companies with the competencies to support the vision of zero landfill Cradle to Cradle manufacturing.
Why did you get interested in sustainable development?
GS4C was originally conceived as a communication project to support a sailing Olympic Campaign. The idea was to track the environmental impact of the campaign and present the results on the eve of the London Olympic Games, where sustainability was a main concern.(2012 Olympic Games were recognized as the “greenest” in history – editor’s note). The natural evolution of that initial concept was to start looking into materials and technologies used to make the boats. We identified what was in our opinion the best compromise between performances and sustainability and started developing a network of companies along the value chain to guarantee complete control over the whole life of the material.
What is your way to the basalt fiber?
We initially looked into basalt fibers during the background research leading to our patented technology to obtain out of autoclave Fiber Metal Laminate, a composite material made of thin layers of aluminum and fiber consolidated by a vacuum assisted infusion process.
For that technology, basalt was a very interesting sustainable alternative to S-Glass in terms of cost and performances. Given our concern for the environment, we looked for fiber manufacturers in Europe to minimize the impact of transport and this is how we learned about Isomatex and their enriched basalt fiber Filava™. At the time Isomatex was just starting up their industrial production after many years spent on a pilot plant doing r&d, so we initiated a collaboration over projects and business development to promote enriched basalt based solutions.
Can you tell us what the enriched basalt fiber is and how it differs from conventional basalt fiber?
It is a unique technological process: basalt is enriched with various mineral additives to increase and guarantee its original mechanical and chemical properties. The good news for us was that given the very strict control over the chemistry of the raw material, the fiber recovered from manufacturing waste and end of life products made in Filava™ can be reintroduced into the furnace to obtain new virgin fiber. For us, this is very important as this is the only true cradle to cradle recycling solution in the composite industry.
Fiberglass and carbon fiber are the most popular in the composite market at present. So we can say that basalt is underestimated. Can you say, what is the reason?
Basalt fiber generated some interest when it was introduced to the market but at the times there were significant issues with the consistency of mechanical properties of the product. Pure basalt fiber can sometimes still be affected by this issue, given the different chemical composition of basalt from quarry to quarry. Unfortunately, the idea of basalt was associated by many end users with this idea of non-reliability and this is still affecting a wider adoption of this fiber despite the higher sustainability. Isomatex invested substantial energy to overcome this problem and they have now a reliable, consistent, environmentally friendly and 100% recyclable aerospace grade product. We are working closely with them to create highly visible business cases in order to foster the adoption of this solution.
What are the advantages of basalt composites in comparison to the other fiber reinforced composites in terms of recycling?
I can only speak for Isomatex’s basalt fiber as we work with their material, which offers the only real cradle to cradle solution in the reinforcement industry. We tested different ways to recover clean fiber from cured composite parts and we verified with Isomatex that the fiber could be re-melted to obtain new pristine virgin fiber with no downgrading. This is absolutely groundbreaking news given the massive effort the whole industry is doing to find a way to recycle composites.
Low embodied energy is another vital factor when considering the environmental impact of the fiber. Another factor we considered when choosing the reinforcement is the manufacturing process. Electricity is the primary energy used during the whole production process at Isomatex and this makes for a fiber with very low embodied energy, further reducing the environmental impact of the product’s life cycle.
We are also testing recyclable bio-based resin from Entropy Resins. The proprietary low energy recycling solution allows to recover both clean fiber and matrix at end of life of cured composite parts and this will be another very important step. At Entropy they claim a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from the production of 50% over conventional petroleum-based epoxies and this is also vital for us in order to reduce the overall environmental impact.
What projects have you implemented and what are your plans for the future?
The main project is the construction of a fully recyclable sail racing boat. Loop650 is a Class Mini650 sailing boat and is at the moment under construction.
To guarantee zero-landfill manufacturing we had to solve several problems to give weaving and manufacturing scraps a second life as chopped strand mat. The solution was found with Cormatex, one of our strategic partners who has a proprietary technology to produce mats from textile scraps with an organic binder.
The mat is designed for sustainable composite moulds and non-structural composite parts.
Another project is the development of our patented technology to produce out of autoclave Fiber Metal Laminate panels. FMLs are well known to the aerospace industry but are considered too expensive to be adopted by other industrial sectors. The solution we patented reduces the manufacturing costs substantially as well as allowing for greater construction freedom.
We are also working on some innovative sustainable solutions for the construction industry, but these are still under development so I can’t tell too much about that.
What are the other applications of FML basalt fiber composites and what industry sectors your development focuses on?
From Academic literature, FMLs allow for about 15% weight save and have a better impact, fatigue, crack diffusion and fire resistance when compared with Aluminium. The FML is a composite material well known to the aerospace industry (large parts of the Airbus A380 are made in FML) and our patented solution greatly reduces manufacturing costs opening up new markets for this great technology. We are obviously looking at the aerospace industry, but also at the high-speed trains, the marine industry, and high-end automotive sector. We are also testing ballistic panels made in FML and the initial tests showed very promising results.
Your company plans to become a resident of the Skolkovo Innovation Park in Russia. What do you expect from the cooperation?
We applied for a Skolkovo residency after learning about the impressive work the Park is doing to foster innovation. Our application was reviewed by the Aerospace Cluster Technical Committee and we were offered a place as resident startup soon after. We are now finalizing the legal and administrative steps to set up a Russian Newco. The Newco will mainly deal with the development of our patented Fiber Metal Laminate technology with the aim to take it to industrial technological readiness as quickly as possible. We are already investigating potential collaborations with Russian companies, but I’m confident that once we become a resident startup things will move much faster on that side too. We will also be looking for local basalt fiber and aluminium suppliers in order to work with a local raw material. Russia has a very long tradition of basalt fiber stretching and is one of the World’s biggest aluminium producer, so opening a company in Russia to develop aluminium and basalt fiber based FML is in our vision a winning bid. This is a very exciting and challenging project for us and we are looking forward to making the most of the benefits offered to Skolkovo’s resident startups.