Reclaimed Palm Oil Project
The Reclaimed Palm Oil Project was started at the Kyoto Design Lab, where Nataša Perković, a product designer from Bosnia and Herzegovina, was invited to work for six months, as part of an international design associate program, by Professor Julia Cassim. Kyoto Design Lab is a research institute of the Kyoto Institute of Technology, a university with leading academics in the field of material development. The brief was to develop a new design material from cellulose waste with a team of material scientists at the university and showcase the new material’s potential applications in high-end designer products.
At first, the team looked into working with various types of wood and bamboo waste but ultimately chose palm oil waste. Much experimentation had already gone into using and upcycling wood and bamboo waste and many of these solutions had already been commercialised. Even though palm oil fibre waste is one of the major cellulose material wastes in Southeast Asia, there was little research on its upcycling. Palm oil is grown for its oil, which is extracted from the plant's small seeds that are wrapped in fibre and housed inside kernels. A very large amount of fibre is left over after the small seed is used. Currently, this palm oil fibre waste is mainly left on the ground as fertiliser or burned for energy.
There is no question that the palm oil industry is detrimental to the environment – responsible for deforestation leading to climate change, loss of wildlife and negative implications to social sustainability. However, even if global consumption of palm oil were to drop radically, there would still be much palm oil fibre waste as a result. In any case, finding a way to upcycle it would be beneficial to the environment.
The scientists working on the project, Dr. Kazunari Masutani, researching bio-based polymers, Professor Emeritus Dr. Teruo Kimura, a mechanical engineer researching sustainable materials, Professor Dr. Haruhiro Ino and Professor Dr. Kazushi Yamada, both working in advanced fibro-science and others, had a leading role in developing the materials. Product designer Nataša Perković also took part in the material development process, taking the opportunity to discuss the physical and chemical properties of the materials, as well as their tactile, visual and design aspects.
About the Material
The waste fibre’s physical and chemical properties were studied alongside developments in bio-based materials science to enable this discarded material to gain high-end aesthetic and functional value. High-tech and low-tech ways of making were simultaneously explored to allow the greatest latitude for design applications. Both can be used with existing technology in radically different manufacturing contexts.
High Tech Material
The high-tech approach involved blending palm oil fibre micro powder with PLA (polylactic acid) to create a new composite material suitable for use as 3D printer filament or as pellets for injection moulding. The goal was for the composite to be extremely strong and its production process and life cycle as clean as possible. It is biodegradable in communal composts and can be recycled with other PLA. The visible palm oil fibres embedded in and reinforcing the polymer give it a more natural surface and an aesthetic and haptic advantage over petrochemical plastics. With its natural component, the new material should age more gracefully than conventional plastics thus presenting an acceptable alternative to fossil-fuel plastics.
The Chair Design
A stackable chair for use in public spaces was designed to showcase the material properties of the new composite. It was designed to use a minimal amount of material and have optimal structural stability. The chair would be produced on an industrial scale by injection moulding, but it has been 3D printed as a demonstration model in two versions - a monomaterial one and the second with a padded seat. The chair’s rounded aesthetic is welcoming and neutral and fits harmoniously into interiors of different styles. Its dimensions combine typical Japanese and Western seat sizes and heights.
Sustainability and Recycling Considerations
A major obstacle to the sustainable disposal of any chair is its multi-material nature – it is difficult and costly to separate materials. The padded version of the chair overcomes this issue. Its cushion is composed of TPE (thermoplastic elastomer) and palm oil fibre meaning that the chair structure and cushion can be composted together. In addition, the cushion is wedged and not bonded into the seat, making it easy to separate thereby enabling the two materials to be recycled individually. Much high-volume public seating is produced from fossil-fuel-based plastics. Selecting materials from sustainable composites such as this would have a positive environmental impact.
Low-Tech Material and Products
The low-tech approach involved experimentation with traditional paper-making techniques and compression moulding to create three-dimensional household items such as bowls, plates, and lamps. The palm oil fibre was processed by soaking, boiling at high pressure, beating, and then shredding finely to become suitable for forming into sheets using flat mesh screens or as moulded 3D shapes. It was then blended with Japanese “denpun nori” rice paste. The fibre and rice paste slurry were strained through a concave sieve, formed on a mould and the objects were then air or oven dried.
The products have been designed with a simple aesthetic to accentuate the qualities of the new material. Renewably sourced coatings such as “carnauba” palm tree wax, “kakishibu” persimmon juice varnish, cashew varnish and others have been used on the products as protective surface coating with a waterproof version coated in resin. The final products were made in a low-tech circumstance, using basic kitchen equipment and little energy but the process required a high level of artisanal skill. This viable way of processing and transforming palm oil fibre waste is transferable to a developing country context where the same principle can be applied to other cellulose waste fibres such as wood or bamboo in a craft workshop or industry context.
Information submitted by the maker and edited by the Future Materials Bank.
PLA, palm oil fibre, rice paste, natural dyes: charcoal, green tea, persimmon, washi paper
Kyoto Design Lab, Kyoto Institute of Technology, Professor Julia Cassim, Project Director Emeritus, Professor Teruo Kimura Associate, Professor Yoko Okahisam Professor Haruhiro Ino, Professor Kazushi Yamada, Tomohiro Inoue, Yoshinori Shiki, Katsumi Kawabata, Shin Yamashita, Dr. Kazunari Masutani, Neo Materia, Dr. Sommai Pivsa-Art, Dr Kiyoaki Ishimoto & Dr Nichinan Pansroy, Rajamangala University of Technology, Thailand S-Lab.
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