Innovation turns SA pine into sustainable ‘hardwood’

by Lynne Smit, Hippo Communications

For many people in South Africa, the beauty and durability of their deck or staircase is more important than the fact that magnificent tropical hardwood forests are being destroyed to provide the wood to build them.

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Luckily Scott Sargent and Stuart Prior see things differently, and their innovative response made their company one of the first three in South Africa to receive the WWF Climate Solvers Award last year. The awards were established six years ago in Sweden and are designed to support small businesses that are developing and commercialising innovations that reduce carbon emissions and boost energy.

The idea that rain forests should be left alone was key to the development of Rhino Modified Wood, a sustainable alternative to tropical hardwoods which is created from fast-growing South African pine.

Research commissioned by the WWF has shown that this and similar technologies have the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by 22 500 000 tonnes per year by 2024. Rhino Modified Wood has been shown to offer a 95% greenhouse gas saving when compared to unsustainably harvested tropical hardwoods such as meranti.

“We need to slow down deforestation,” says Prior. “The WWF has set a target of zero net deforestation and forest degradation by 2020, and we need a totally new approach if we are to achieve this.”

“It is ingrained in consumers’ perceptions that SA pine is simply inferior and cannot be subject to exposed conditions for long,” Prior says. “This preconception is often associated with a lack of education regarding timber products and their sourcing. It is our duty to show people that our product can outperform other forest hardwood products whilst being truly sustainable.”

Rhino Modified Wood is created using SA pine but the final product looks feels and performs nothing like it. The innovative technique sees a patented wax compound being injected deep into heat treated pine. The exact components of the compound are a secret, but it is based on a waste product which would otherwise be destined for a landfill.

The heat treatment collapses the cells and burns out the sugars and resins which would have made the wood susceptible to rot. The non-toxic compound pushes out any remaining moisture and fills the voids. The result is the transformation of previously weak and porous wood into a hard wood with increased load bearing capabilities, strength and, as a bonus, something which is not recognised as a food source by termites or wood borers.

The development of a new product is not without its challenges and Sargent and Prior had many hurdles to jump before they could get their product to market.

“We were fortunate to have been able to modify an existing pressure chamber so we could get a prototype fairly cheaply,” Sargent says. “But when it came to testing we were met with some challenges. We had to send the product to Germany for testing which increased our expenses and the lead times. There was also very little competing data, so comparing our product with others was not easy.”

Ingenuity and a determination to succeed were key, and the pair used apparatus borrowed from the paint industry to weather test their wood.

“When it came to our green credentials we found that the requirements were confusing. This needs to be fixed, or it could potentially sideline smaller businesses,” warns Prior.

The team welcomed the hoops they needed to jump through to establish intellectual property and register patents. “It made us look at the business very hard, and it gave us security,” Prior says.

“Legislation is on our side too. The EU, US and Australia have already legislated against illegal hardwood imports. This opens a huge market for us. We’d like to see our government doing the same thing.”

What’s next for Rhino Modified Wood?

“We need to educate the building fraternity and the public about the benefits of our product,” Prior says. “The Climate Solvers Award is a huge boost for us. We believe that if the market has a true alternative to hardwoods we will see demand growing for a truly renewable resource such as our solution.”

* This article was written for the WWF Climate Solvers Award by Hippo Communications.

 

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SciBraai, a proudly South African NPO dedicated to science journalism, communication and outreach. SciBraai began on Heritage Day 2013 - Anina Mumm and Engela Duvenage in 2013 launched the website, scibraai.co.za, to feature stories about South African research, technology and innovation, and the people behind the discoveries. This blog welcomes all South Africans to go behind the scenes of local science and exploration endeavors. It’s a place to share stories about the scientists themselves and the interesting, little-known activities that are often left out of research journals. A place to learn more about the stuff that makes South African science and its people tick. A place to feel inspired about what South Africans are discovering on home soil and abroad. Because local is lekker, no matter what language you use. SciBraai's following has grown in the past years, and we are now on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We've also begun organising real-life braai's where we share round-the-fire stories about South African science and scientists.

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