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Growing Biobased Building Materials

What could be better than simply growing your own building materials? From building sheets made of peanut shells to plastics made from sugar beets, the benefit of a shift towards biobased materials could be enormous as these materials have the potential to reduce energy use and greenhouse gasses and produce fewer toxic pollutants over their lifecycle than products that are made from sources such as fossil fuels. As such, biobased materials are one of the fastest growing areas of interest in Materia’s collection.

What is a biobased material?

Terms such as the circular economy are often associated with biobased materials for the reason that at heart, biobased materials are about closing and creating short loops. While fossil fuels have long cyclical lifecycles of millions of years, biobased materials have shorter loops of typically a single growing season to about 100 years – i.e. a tree.

There are two broad categories of biobased materials: Conventional and Emerging. Conventional biobased products and materials are biodegradable and made from animal materials or plant materials. Building material examples include pulp and paper, wood, and leathers along with crop based materials such as flax, hemp, bamboo and coconut fibres.

Emerging biobased materials, or biorenewables, are by contrast often active subjects of research and development and are where much of the innovation lies. These materials are extracted by bio-refining processes or produced from materials with biological origins. While these materials are not necessarily biodegradable, they can at least in part be ‘re-grown’. For example, sugar beets can be refined to first extract sugar, then lactic acid, and finally polylactic acid (PLA) for use in plastics.

Despite the exciting advancements in the use of plant derived building materials, one particular difficulty involves ensuring agricultural land is not being used at the expense of global food production. In response, research groups such as SPLASH are looking at the sustainable production of polymers from algae, which may provide an interesting solution to this problem because algae farms do not require arable land.

Another ongoing debate surrounds the question of certification. What percentage of a material must come from a plant or animal in order to be certified as biobased? 40%? 80%? What about standard quality requirements for biobased products such as strength, flexibility, permeability and organic degradability? Such standardization is an ongoing research topic and essential for the industry as it allows biobased products to be compared to other products and it also enables policy development.

Biobased Material X-Factor:

While biobased materials offer numerous positives in terms of environmental and human health when compared to many fossil fuel based materials, biobased materials offer numerous other beneficial qualities. Biobased materials are not only naturally breathable but are also warm and regulate moisture. In addition, they also just feel and smell nice – imagine the distinctive smell of cedar, a wallpaper made of rose petals or the texture of Icelandic fishleather.

Explore Materia’s collection this season for more.