Canterbury students invent new materials from flax and cabbage tree leaves
30 June 2021
Sustainable materials made from cabbage tree leaves and flax could soon be used to build high-performance skis and skateboards in Christchurch.
KiwiFibre Innovations is a new company set up by two young University of Canterbury (UC) students, Ben Scales and William Murrell.
Scales, 21, is studying towards a Bachelor of Product Design and Bachelor of Commerce, and Murrell, 20, is a Bachelor of Product Design student.
After experimenting in the garages of their student flats the pair have developed new natural composite materials using New Zealand ti kōuka (cabbage tree) and harakeke (flax).
Their plan is to use these materials to create recreational products such as skis, snowboards, kayaks and skateboards, which are currently manufactured from fibreglass and carbon fibre.
They have just finished their first working prototype, a harakeke biocomposite skateboard made from recycled polylactic acid (PLA) derived from corn starch and harakeke fibre, and they hope to have other prototypes under way next year.
“We’re making a brand new material from a natural source and the potential uses it has are pretty unlimited,” Scales says. “This first product is just a glimpse of the future possibilities from a revived harakeke industry.”
He says making recreational products from recycled natural materials is a growing market internationally. But their point of difference is in using distinctly New Zealand materials to create a new fibre.
The outer ti kōuka and harakeke leaves can be removed in a way that does not harm the plants and is beneficial for their growth.
“We’ve designed it to be recyclable and it has much better flexing capabilities than conventional materials,” Scales says. “It also has fantastic sound and energy absorption. We think it will make for smoother, more comfortable riding skis, skateboards and snowboards because it absorbs the shock from any bumps.”
Globally the composite materials market is worth about $12 billion (NZD).
Scales and Murrell have already had inquiries from international companies who’ve heard about their work and want to find out more.
“We’re pretty keen to keep an open mind but we’ve had some meetings,” Scales says. “Our focus is on developing a sustainable business model and a strong supply chain before launching into developing and testing products.”
Harakeke has not been used commercially for more than 30 years, and Scales says they are working to rebuild the local industry for the product in a “sustainable way that acknowledges its cultural significance”.
“This is exciting as it has the potential to boost harakeke planting and lead to the creation of thousands of jobs, with huge economic, societal and environmental benefits.”
KiwiFibre plans to use harakeke flax milled in Riverton, Southland and processed by local manufacturing companies.
“All the creation of an industry requires is end products, consumer awareness and a long-term vision which is what we’re hoping to provide,” Scales says.
The young entrepreneurs say developing their business as well as continuing with their studies has meant sacrificing their social lives.
But, so far it’s been worth it. Scales says they’ve received “invaluable” guidance and support by University of Canterbury’s Centre for Entrepreneurship in establishing their company.
They took part in the UCE Summer Start-up programme earlier this year, which has led to important connections with mentors and potential investors.
“I’ve always wanted to do the absolute best I can in all areas of my life, and William is the same,” Scales says.
“In five years’ time we want to be providing a natural alternative material for the range of recreational goods that are currently manufactured from fibreglass and carbon fibre, which are difficult to recycle. Our composite material has a natural binding agent, rather than synthetic, so we hope it will break down faster.
“We’ve called ourselves KiwiFibre because we are looking into every natural fibre in New Zealand in terms of its engineering potential. We plan to be the world’s leading supplier of New Zealand natural fibre composites.”
UC School of Product Design Senior Lecturer Tim Huber says Ben and William are a great example of what the degree is all about. “What they’ve done shows how we can combine aspects of design with engineering to create a new product through exploration and development. They’ve also gained the business know-how to take it into the market.
“As far as I know they’re the first of our Industrial Product Design students to start their own business with a product they’ve come up with during their studies, and we’re all quite proud of them and what they’ve achieved so far.”
Where nature and knowledge collide, University of Canterbury researchers are building Sustainable Futures. Throughout July, we are sharing some of the innovative research University of Canterbury academics are creating to grow society’s understanding of the natural world and shape a sustainable future for generations to come. He Kaitiaki tatou katoa – We will enhance and nurture our resources.
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