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The Quest for Eco Composites

Boat yards and design offices embrace new fibers and resins that promise to reduce pollution, consume less energy in production, and yield composite boats that can be recycled.

“It is going to be a big eight,” said skipper Norbert Sedlacek describing his planned solo nonstop sailing journey to prove the durability and go-anywhere quality of his new brand, Innovation Yachts. The Austrian sailor and filmmaker plans to sail from France through the Northwest Passage around Canada and Alaska, head south over the Pacific Ocean, go left around Cape Horn, circle Antarctica, come around Cape Horn again, and set course north to return to France over the Atlantic Ocean—a 34,000-nautical-mile world-record attempt.

His first attempts at this route around the Americas and Antarctica in 2018 and 2019 ended when equipment problems forced a return to France. His 2020 attempt was foiled by the COVID-19 lockdown when Canadian authorities denied permission to cross through the Northwest Passage, so Sedlacek again postponed. Fortunately, our primary interest is really in his boat, not the voyage.

Innovation Yachts’ First Builds with Volcanic Fibers

The boat he plans to sail on this challenging trip is the Open 60 (18.29m) Ant Arctic Lab, which he designed and built to be fully recyclable. It is Innovation Yachts’ first build in cored-composite construction using balsa-wood panels for the core and volcanic-rock fiber—basalt and solidified lava—for the skin laminates. (The resin is a purpose-engineered epoxy.) The result is a yacht that required less energy to build and employs natural and renewable materials as much as possible. And at the conclusion of its useful sailing life, all the yacht’s composite materials can be separated and processed for reuse in another boat or some other composite construction. (See also Butterfly 46: A Yacht for 2050)

Besides his own quest as an ocean racer, Sedlacek aims to illustrate that yacht building can be sustainable. “To start something new, you need to gain trust. I want to prove that building yachts from natural and recyclable materials results in better boats. If I can complete this immense trip, rounding the Americas and Antarctica, that will show the ruggedness of the boat,” he said.

Sedlacek and his partner, Marion Koch, founded Innovation Yachts in 2016, in the French harbor town and yachting hot spot Les Sables d’Olonne. While informed by some idealistic thinking, their plan to build ocean­going yachts from natural materials is also powered by a surfeit of practical building and sailing experience. Sedlacek’s first solo circumnavigation was in 1996 on the 26 (7.92m) composite boat Oase II he built himself. His next challenge was building an aluminum yacht to circumnavigate Antarctica through ice-fouled waters. He completed that in 2000 on Oase III. In 2009, he became the first Austrian to finish the Vendée Globe, the iconic French solo nonstop race around the world. Before he could compete in that race, he engineered modifications to the aluminum and composite construction of Austria One to bring her into compliance with International Monohull Open Class Association (IMOCA) 60 design rules.

Next, he created the concept and design and then served as project manager for the 91 (27.74m) aluminum luxury cruising yacht Bellkara, a sloop with a lifting keel built in 2016 at the Conrad Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland.

Innovation Yachts’ plan since 2016 has been to prove the concept of quality yacht building with a low carbon footprint and fully recyclable materials. Technical Director Marion Koch had written her master’s thesis on the hydromechanics and material properties of IMOCA 60 ocean-racing yachts. Together with Sedlacek and working with her company, Yacht Construction Consulting in Altlengbach, Austria, they introduced volcanic fiber into boatbuilding. The first marine application of the laminate was in the 4.9m Open 16 sloop Fipofix. Sailing this small boat in 2013–14, Harald Sedlacek, Norbert’s son, claimed three world records crossing the Atlantic from Europe to North America and back. (Fipofix, or Fiber Positioning Fixation, is a patented method of processing volcanic fibers into unidirectional fabric, explained below.)

Eco Composite Products and Processes

While modern, the design of Ant Arctic Lab is not dramatically different from other ocean-racing yachts. Recyclability comes largely from its materials. The hand-laid hull is a conventional balsa-cored composite structure. Balsa is super-lightweight, with good strength, stiffness, sound-dampening, and thermal-insulation properties. Innovation Yachts’ balsa supplier, 3A Composites, harvests from Forest Stewardship Council–certified plantations in Ecuador. Because balsa trees grow to 98.43 (30m) high and 3.28 (1m) in diameter in just five years, the planting-to-harvest cycle is so short it causes no measurable deforestation, making it a sustainable and quickly renewable resource. As it is absorbent, it also provides an excellent bond with the fiber and resin layer.

The innovation comes from the fiber, a laminate textile called Filava, made of volcanic rock and produced by the Belgian company Isomatex. Volcanic rock is melted at high heat and drawn into fibers, resulting in a strong, water-repellent, lightweight material that resists high temperatures and chemicals. Filava is available as unidirectional fiber tows and as woven fabric. Although the largest European production facility in the town of Gembloux, southeast of Brussels, opened in 2008, volcanic rock fiber has previously been used in composite windmill blades, airplane and car parts, and sports gear.

Volcanic fiber has a melting point of 2,516ºF (1,380ºC), meaning that walls and doors made of Filava can be applied as fire-protection barriers. The fiber also absorbs vibrations and is highly shock resistant. Innovation Yachts considers laminates from volcanic fiber comparable in strength to carbon fiber but at a lower cost, which would make it a desirable boatbuilding material.

Made from basalt rock and other natural components, Filava’s fibers compare favorably to other more common fibers in composite construction: high impact resistance like aramid or Kevlar, better elasticity than fiberglass and carbon, resistance to acid and alkaline environments, and no galvanic corrosion where it’s in contact with metals.

In Isomatex’s proprietary process, raw materials are carefully mixed in a computer-assisted blender and transported by a pneumatic conveyor to the electric induction furnace to melt and refine the lava. The complex process requires high temperatures. The electric furnaces operate two to three times more efficiently than oxy-fuel or gas-fired alternatives. While Filava consumes less energy to produce than do most carbon fibers, it requires more than flax or glass fiber does.

Recognizing that the main dis­advan­tage of raw volcanic fiber is its fragility, Koch’s Yacht Construction Consulting and Norbert Sedlacek, in collaboration with the Austrian telecommunications and logistics company Kapsch, developed a patented process called Fiber Positioning Fixation, or Fipofix. The technique processes the brittle, touchy volcanic fibers into rugged unidirectional fabric purpose-built for marine applications. Other conventional assembly methods (weaving, stapling, and sewing) damaged as much as 40% of the roving filaments, decreasing the product’s performance under compressive and tensile loads. Fipofix bonds the positioned fibers to the respective matrix in the mold for final processing without using foreign materials such as yarns, clamps, or other adhesives that additionally weaken the part. The Fipofix proof of concept was Harald Sedlacek’s record-breaking Atlantic crossing in the Open 16 of the same name.

Custom Epoxies

The composite’s third and final component is he resin. Innovation Yachts chose the resin supplier bto-epoxy (Build to Order, in Amstetten, Austria), an innovative company producing custom epoxies since 2012. The resin shows no shrinkage, contains no harmful solvents, and is intended to remain with the fiber and balsa beyond the end of a yacht’s life, allowing all three materials to be reused. Koch: “We will not heat the epoxy, as it will take a lot of energy to heat all of the materials to the melting point. A lot of the material will then be burnt, so will not be available for recycling anymore. Yet the remaining fibers will be shredded and only need a bit of epoxy to be applied again.” Innovation Yachts has tested the reusability of shredded fibers recovered from composite test panels for the Ant Arctic Lab by incorporating them into non-load-bearing components for new boats, including the dashboard of a yacht tender.

As bto-epoxy is processed from fossil oil, Sedlacek explains this somewhat counterintuitive choice for a yacht largely built with renewable components and materials: “We do not want to use any material that is not developed for yacht building. Yes, there are ‘green’ epoxies available, but they do not have the same properties yet as the resins made out of fossil oil. We do not want to use any construction materials in the hull that are not specially produced for maritime use, or that don’t outperform the ones commonly used in maritime applications.” In some parts of the interior, Innovation Yachts uses epoxy made of vegetable oil, but Sedlacek says it lacks the material properties to have the endurance, water resistance, and impact absorption that the bto-epoxy offers. “As soon as an epoxy resin is developed out of renewable resources that does have the right properties, we will use it,” he said.

Sedlacek is confident of his vision and the leading role his company intends to play: “When an Innovation Yachts hull comes back to the yard after its 30-year lifetime, or even longer, the owner should be getting money for the materials that can be derived from the boat. They have value because of the reusability.”

Sedlacek says he’s looking for long-term investors, because it “takes time to develop something new.” He is convinced that Innovation Yachts is on the right track ushering in an era of more sustainable materials in boatbuilding. “Our new technology is better and cheaper, and recyclable. Massproduction yards will follow. I am convinced they will need to.”

Scaled Up at Amer

Amer Yachts, builder of motor­yachts from 20m to 30m (65.6 to 98.4) in San Remo, Italy, chose Filava for their composite hulls. As the super­yacht industry requires class society certification, the yard has started a cooperation with the Italian composites company GS4C to test and further develop composites from the recyclable fiber. Class societies ENEA (the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development) and RINA (Registro Italiano Navale, the Italian class society for ship safety certification) are studying Filava’s properties to assess durability. As this certification takes time, the Amer yard will introduce the new fiber in small steps. First, it will be used in nonstructural components. Following successful application, more parts may be constructed from the volcanic fiber.

An Eco Composite Beach Cat

To provide the most sustainable boats possible, the founders of the yacht charter company La Bella Verde tapped Innovation Yachts to design, engineer, and build their new 10.6m (35) sailing beach catamaran. The boat accommodates 11 guests and a professional captain, with ample space to relax on the trampoline. There is a head in one of the hulls, a fridge, and a sound system—requisite items for beach-hopping in the Bal­earic Islands, where these new catamarans will be chartered at waterside locations on Ibiza and Formentera.

La Bella Verde set out to prove that ecologically benign boating can be a modern, fun luxury experience. Maarten Bernhart, one of the three founders, explains how the company started in 2014: “We bought one open catamaran and converted it to electric propulsion for getting out and into harbors. We continued to convert more open catamarans to green electric-propelled boats [and] sold about seven refitted beach cats.” In search of a suitable day charter catamaran, Bernhart said he found a Rush 10 (32.8) owned by a former builder, and the company bought the molds to build and sell these cats.

Looking for a boat with an even smaller environmental footprint, La Belle Verde teamed up with Innovation Yachts’ Sedlacek and Koch. With a new design ready, the first boats started being built at the Innovation Yachts yard in 2020. They are a sandwich composite of FSC-certified balsa core—made with Filava and bto-epoxy skin laminates. “We offer the La Bella Verde cat to small charter companies that want to stand out with a nonpolluting boat,” Bernhart said. “And we will expand our own fleet with those catamarans.”

Flax Fiber and Linseed-Oil Epoxy

Friedrich Deimann, founder of Green­Boats, a start-up boatbuilding company in Bremen, Germany, calculates that it takes five times as much energy to produce glass fiber rovings, and 20 times as much to make carbon fiber, compared to growing and making fibers from flax. “It is really not nice to work on the construction of composite yachts built in the conventional way,” he said. “The glass fiber or carbon fiber is invasive to the body. The resins and solvents are toxic. Still, after having built a lot of handcrafted wooden sailboats, I was attracted to the possibility of building strong and lightweight in composite. So, when I found flax as a possible fiber, I was eager to use it.”

Next, researching a sustainable core material for sandwich composites eventually led him to cork. It is lightweight, does not absorb water, and has good impact resistance. The hardest ingredient to find was a nonpetrochemical resin. Linseed-oil-based epoxies are available, but most of them do not generally yield the watertightness, durability, stiffness, and shock absorption required in yacht construction. But after extensive testing, Deimann found the right linseed-oil-based epoxy to bind a unique composite of flax fibers and cork core together. In that quest, he said he has tried numerous epoxy resins. The tested epoxies range between 20% and 80% bio-content and are produced by multiple resin manufacturers. Some are better optimized for hand layup, while others are best for infusing, he says. In short, the best resin depends on the material qualities of the fiber and the structure it is being applied to.

The most recent tangible manifestation of Deimann’s research, the Judel/Vrolijk-designed Flax 27 daysailer, is also the boatbuilder’s most complete natural-fiber composite project to date. Finding just the right combinations of flax cloth and linseed-oil epoxy provided the solution for that build. Because flax fully absorbs the resin but is lighter than glass, the resulting laminate can be quite dense. Together with a good core material, the flax/epoxy laminate yields a composite Deimann says is good for building boats. He warns that the high resin absorption rate makes hand lamination of flax material a challenge. He prefers to use resin infusion which better controls the resin/fiber ratio. But he depends on using tightly twisted flax fibers in a dense weave that has high surface density and leaves little space for extra resin to pool between the yarns.

When they started building the first flax composite boat by hand in a shed with a group of friends and no budget, Deimann and his co-workers had to prove that natural materials could result in an even better composite boat than those made out of petrochemical sources. They’ve come a long way with the 2019 introduction of the much-praised daysailer Flax 27 (8.2m) weighing just 2,645.55 lbs (1,200 kg). GreenBoats offers a choice of core material: cork, or foam from recycled PET soda bottles.

While boatbuilding and sailing remain its focus, the company’s production use of natural-resource composites reaches many other industries, including power generation, automotive, architecture, and outdoor sports. “We do a lot of prototyping to introduce other companies to the use of natural-fiber-reinforced composites,” Deimann said. “The materials selected and the manufacturing process depend on the requirements for the product: life expectancy, quantities, mechanical requirements, etc. This is where the journey with our customers begins, and together we work out various options and compare them in costs, performance, and sustainability.”

Big Companies Invest in Eco Composites

While the first yards to explore the practicality of building boats from recyclable or sustainable composite materials had to search for the right resins, the large resin manufacturers—often petrochemical companies—are now developing and introducing recyclable and bio-based resins. While I was writing this article, the French chemical company Arkema gave me a questionnaire about the need for eco-resins and the demands boatbuilders would have for such a bio-epoxy. Within weeks, the outcome of the poll and the company’s answers were shared. Arkema has been working to improve its Elium thermoplastic resins to make them recyclable. The resin, though still fossil-oil based, can be separated from the fiber and core material at the end of a boat’s service life.

In practice, composites recycling can be done in two ways: mechanical and chemical. Mechanical is grinding the composite into small pieces and reusing them as a filler material that can be bonded by adding new resin. The chemical approach is to heat the composite so the Elium resin will melt out of the fibers. The resulting crude recycled monomer can be distilled into pure recycled monomer, which can be used as a resin to build new composites.

Global composites supplier Gurit has been working with Swiss high-tech start-up Bcomp, which produces flax fiber. Products now sold through Gurit’s broad distribution networks are Bcomp’s ampliTex and powerRibs. The latter is a structure of flax fibers inspired by the veins of tree leaves to create extra stiff structures at minimal weight. Gurit also sells foam-core material from recycled PET soda bottles; and in its Ampro epoxy resin line, the company offers Ampro Bio, a plant-oil-based epoxy containing roughly 40% plant oil and 60% fossil oil. While none of these fibers, core material, and epoxies are designed for recycling, after being shredded at the end a boat’s service life, the composites may have a second application as material for nonstructural parts—much like the reuse of Filava composites described by Koch.

About the Author: Freelance journalist Hans Buietlaar, who lives in The Nether­lands, specializes in yachting and the maritime industry, focusing on technology and sustainable innovations.

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