Nathan Kotlarewski with a balsa log in PNG

A Swinburne University PhD student has developed a new acoustic and thermal insulation wall panel with big triple-bottom-line sustainability benefits.

Fabricated from balsa wood grown by former cocoa farmers in Papua New Guinea, the panel created by Nathan Kotlarewski has been installed and tested at Vault Industrial Design Showroom in Melbourne. It solved an acoustic issue staff had been having in the space, due to it being long and “echo-y”, Mr Kotlarewski said. The acoustics had been so poor, even receiving phone calls was difficult.

The idea for the product came about during his honours year research at the Swinburne Design Factory in collaboration with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

The social problem he was looking at was the impact of the collapse of the cocoa industry, which had led many people in PNG to plant balsa trees for an alternative income stream.

Balsa trees are extremely fast-growing, capable of achieving 40 metres of growth in five years. However, they are also extremely vulnerable to rot, so must be harvested at that age to achieve a viable return.

“Many of these trees were not being harvested, due to the oversupply and lack of international demand for the material,” Mr Kotlarewski said.

“It was clear that there was a real need for new products and applications for balsa, to enable the people of PNG to keep growing it, to support their livelihoods, local communities and social order.”

Balsa-lation at Vault Design

On enrolling in his PhD he returned to PNG to undertake further research, including working with locals to find out more about potential uses for balsa.

Product design, locals told him, was the key to saving the industry.

Testing carried out on the wood’s mechanical, thermal, acoustic and fire properties at the Design Factory convinced Mr Kotlarewski it would make an excellent material for lightweight interior lining boards or ceiling lining boards.

“There are many benefits to balsa. It’s much lighter, making it easier to install, compared to other products and materials, and it looks beautiful. It’s also socially responsible, ethically it uses an existing renewable resource and it’s commercially and economically viable,” he said.

It is an alternative to products such as MDF (medium density fibreboard), which contain formaldehydes, and also to polymer and metal lining products.

Its advantages also include reducing transport requirements due to its lighter weight, reducing the amount of labour required for installation, and no need for any machinery to install it.

“Existing lining products currently used in the construction industry, such as medium density fibreboard, are approximately 30kg and contain urea formaldehydes. My balsa panels are approximately 10kg, comply with E0 formaldehyde emissions, have great thermal performance and absorb unwanted noise reverberations,” Mr Kotlarewski said.

The prototype “Balsa-lation” comprises an inner core of balsa wood, with FSC-certified hoop pine ply on the face and rear surfaces. A VOC-free water-based polyurethane adhesive has been used. The product’s development and testing was funded by the proceeds of winning the Swinburne Design Cup for the concept and business plan he developed.

The innovation has been recognised with the student prize at this month’s International Green Interior Design Awards, and he is also a finalist in the Victorian Premier’s Design Awards, which will be announced in December.

The next step is to develop the pathway for fully commercialising the product and bringing it to market. Mr Kotlarewski said he is looking at the possibility of a joint venture arrangement and also the potential for attracting an angel investor.

Balsa-lation is part of his broader aim to help “clean up the construction industry” through designing greener products, he said.

“This is the decade these kinds of [sustainable] products will become mandatory.”

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