one time Dutch rocket materials scientist, these days is overseeing
a revolution in new synthetic fibres. These superlight composite
materials promise elegant strategies for environmental design solutions.
Here Beukers talks about how this design and engineering movement
Oliver Lowenstein email@example.com
- 01273 473501
a culture of 'lightness' is beginning to take root. Or, at least
the first shoots of a new way of thinking around the key metaphor
of lightness are beginning to emerge as a fully formed conceptual
approach to how we design and organise the man-made world around
is about the integration of a new generation of lightweight,
fibre-reinforced polymer materials, part of the family of synthetic
and natural fibres. These materials are being used in many areas
of the designed and built world, from vehicles to aircraft,
from buildings to specific things - such as beer kegs and windmill
rotorblades. The area of research builds on earlier investigations
into the use of radically lightweight structures, developed
for aerospace engineering at Delft University of Technology.
For those involved there seems to be considerable confidence
that, in the words of one paper, composites are 'on the brink
of a new industrial revolution'1. Apart from Delft, 'Lightness'
as a guiding metaphor has been embraced by other Dutch design
organisations, including the Foundation for Smart Architecture,
the Dutch Design Institute, and a design movement nattily titled
Droog Design (Dry Design). In fact in 1999 the Design Institute
published the ground-breaking book, Lightness; the inevitable
renaissance of minimum structures. It has done much on mainland
Europe to spread the word about this way of looking at the world.
With that dispersal of influence, the notion of lightness as
the key to apprehending the relationship between design and
sustainabilty, has joined together others with separate though
overlapping conceptual tools - notably Factor Four, and those
in the ecological rucksack - allowing designers, builders, anyone
actually, to understand the nitty-gritty of what practical sustainability
boils down to.
It goes further
than this though. As Adriaan Beukers - co-author of the 'Lightness'
book, and one of the main players in the development of the field
- repeatedly points out, the tradition of 'lightness' is a very
long one. It stretches back to prehistoric times, and the consequences
of human powered transportation. Until the domestication of the
horse and other animals, travelling humans would have had to have
lived within the constraints of their own carrying capacity. They
would have had to travel 'light', and necessity being the mother
of invention, would have developed ways for covering the furthest
distances, whilst expending the least energy. Only with the changes
instigated by the use of the horse, and what followed - from caravanserai,
to train, to internal combustion powered vehicle, did carrying capacity
outgrow these constraints. This has meant a gradual abandonment
of the pre-modern lightness principle. With industrialisation and
the mass adoption of metals, weight became, relatively, irrelevant,
an evolutionary pathway which has led progressively down a cul de
sac. It has inculcated bad habits; a reliance on ecologically heavy
materials and methods, both in themselves, and for their transportation.
Today, the results have included exponentially rising costs for
transporting goods and people, in terms of energy input, and in
terms of transport infrastructure. The clear implication is that
"transport needs less energy if we develop lighter vehicles and
reduce the weight of transported goods and packaging"2 . Which is
where low density materials come in.
research factories such as Factor Four at Wuppertal, have shown
that buildings, and the construction industry, account for two thirds
of the energy use of the Western world. Architects, taking on the
Lightness metaphor, and following the lead of Buckminster Fuller
and his geodesic visions, have increasingly pursued structures which
rely on the dynamic relation between tension and compression, whilst
optimising the inherent properties of the materials being used.
If a building or structure is constructed to take optimum advantage
of shape and the best use of the materials to reduce energy use,
and lighten its load, this is smart thinking. As with architecture,
so with design. Fibres made from glass, carbon, and polyethane are
all versatile in withstanding tension. Wood isn't, whilst horn,
bone and ceramics are all good for compressing. Fibre-based cables
and chords can hold larger, and heavier loads, because different
tension systems support these greater weights. The result is lighter
structures. Following in the footsteps of suspension bridge builders
and Bedouin tent makers, structures applying this tensile tent metaphor,
and using efficient and lightweight composite materials, have become
increasingly common over the last couple of decades. This principle
can be found across pre-modern design, from the elegance of the
Japanese egg carrier to rope bridges, or from kites to the threaded
weave of baskets. Much of this has been learnt from imitating the
forms of nature, from the beautiful underwater radiolaria, to the
bee's honeycomb, to soap bubble cells. That "the structure in nature
is an elegant strategy for design", be it the hard discipline of
Biomimetics or the softwoods of Baubiologie, is, in the words of
Peter Pearce, an increasingly recognised part of architecture and
design and is good news. That it is also part of the repertoire
of the Lightness community, and a plank from which smart thinking
starts, reveals the increasing return of Nature to the design world.
There are basically
four groups of composite materials. These are, following the Lightness
book: wood and other renewables (straw, bamboo); plastics; glass
and ceramics; and metals. They can be combined as a variety of effective
composites, although the most common combination is between ceramics,
glass and various fibres. Another dividing line between these is
synthetic and natural fibres. At present there is an upsurge of
research in many different composite materials and their potential
applications. This has resulted in projects which have developed
light bicycles, boats, trains, planes, buses and lorries, and, for
the latter, customised trailers which can be up to 30% lighter than
their traditional counterparts. It has also meant developments,
as mentioned above, in windmill rotorblades, bridges, and even,
beer kegs. Not only are the latter much lighter than steel kegs,
they also show how the filament-reinforced container echoes the
ancient practice of carrying liquids in animal skins.
A question remains.
The creation of the synthetic polymers upon which so much of this
talked-up renaissance of minimum energy materials depends, is itself
completely dependent on a nexus of industrial processes, each of
which has its own associated embodied and through-put energy "weightloads".
Many of the carbon polymers are the progeny of heavy duty industrial
processes, not least those attached to oil processing plants. It
seems certain that there is research on the embodied energy of the
material input of these, but the irony of a new industrial revolution
resting on an industrial substrata isn't hard to appreciate. The
research is still in the earliest of phases, when its promise is
still high, but remains primarily industrial in character. Not surprising
perhaps, when its momentum is coming from such departments as Delft's
Faculty of Aerospace Engineering. At the low-tech end of the research
continuum, the notion that a restrained application of these composites
might be effective, i.e. a sparing integration with natural polymers,
such as wood, seems to be considered only fleetingly, and on the
fringes of research.
was in Hanoi in 1999, where he convened the third International
Workshop on Materials Science. Vietnam, one of the planet's poorest
countries, remains an agricultural economy. Beukers believes composites
hold out particular promise for countries which are still primarily
agricultural in character. The composites are part of an alternative
vision to importing an obsolete manufacturing base which then attempts
to imitate the growth of older industrial economies. Instead, the
approach advocated by Beukers sees composites as supporting and
lightening is an agricultural economy with industrial innovation
supporting it. For example, he points to the development of special
giant plastic-fibre gas 'carrying' bags - like big balloons, which
are light enough for people to pull themselves for their own gas
needs. These have replaced metal containers, which are both much
heavier and carry smaller amounts of gas. It is thinking along these
lines which can help the poorest countries to take on composites
as part of a new wave of industrial thinking, thus leap-frogging
the traps of the old industrial revolution, and developing an economy
which manufactures and trades to and for local needs. To support
this, Beukers and his colleagues, along with the Vietnamese Government,
have initiated a training programme at Delft for young Vietnamese
engineers to come and study the core principles of this composites
This was the
starting point of a short conversation I had with Beukers during
a break at the last Doors conference, so-called after the design
movement he helped to bring into being.
year, we went with a group of people to Vietnam and we convinced
the Vietnamese people we met there not to copy what has already
been done. A lot of industries there use technologies or products
which are not accepted here any more. We export those technologies
to countries where the environmental regulations, and the expected
quality are different. So when they import 'new' technologies over
there, it is always something which is obsolete in other areas.
What we tried to tell them is to make use of developments we have
nowadays. Also, to look to their culture and their own traditions.
The Vietnamese have the most magnificent packaging, like the Japanese.
What we tried to say was to use their own local materials.
receptive? And are projects being instigated as a result?
were. At Government level they are now thinking of sending students
to Delft, to be educated and exposed to this way of thinking. Most
of those countries do not realise how high their standard and level
of thinking is. So now, instead of following the Western paradigm
they try to make use of some of the good developments.
be great! Are you actively looking for other countries as well?
actively. Because I don't like reports in the cupboard! I like products.
All the development we have done has been by students because big
companies are not interested in developing products which are long
term. Managers are just short-term thinkers. They are not interested
in any investment with uncertainties. Even companies which are really
in the same business, for instance in manufacturing beer kegs, are
not interested, because it's another type of material to start all
over again with, and it's a strain for their own production.
But some beer
kegs are going into production?
only with beer companies. We have two directions. One is just strategic
because they spend a lot of money. World-wide, people are carrying
those heavy steel cylinders. This one is so light that you can roll
it like a wheel from the filling station to your home. There's a
very nice mechanism in place, where people pay money for the packaging
and you get a refund. They also pay for the product. If you bring
a few million gas containers onto the market you get directly such
a huge amount of money that you can invest in a factory. That's
what we're trying to do in Vietnam, and that's something they've
never heard of before. We're trying to teach them that but they've
never heard about creating companies before. It's a real communistic
bureaucratic culture, but they have no other choice, because everything
they introduce is taken over by the Chinese, and the Chinese can
produce everything far more cheaply.
You feel a bit
sceptical about lightness in new media? Or does it depend on how
I think people
use the Internet more or less for communication. People communicate
more and more through the Internet. Before the Internet there was
silence, but today those moments of silence, of thinking and reflecting,
disappear with this jump inside the screen. As I have Email, people
write to me far more often, but most of the questions I get are
totally different. A few years ago when people had to write a letter
you never got such questions. You are doing the work which they
should be researching. Instead of going to the library, looking
in books. These questions, by comparison, are formulated so quickly.
Do you think
it's connected up to acceleration?
it's being used in superficial ways. Because browsing is the best
way to get ideas, it isn't actually helping create new ideas where
you are thinking with your mind. It's a bit of a problem.
question of the embodied and life cycle energy efficiencies. You
said there was an answer in your book. Presumably though you've
done a lot on the issues around the size of the ecological footprintthese
new materials make, and in analysing their life cycles?
cycle analysis, and making energy balance, is part of engineering
these days. When we analysed moving, packaging, the articles and
cars and transport, we found 80 to 90% of the life cycle analysis
centred around transportation - nothing in manufacturing.
So which part
of transportation is it? The use of oils? Or is it the vehicle itself?
It is especially
in the weight of the vehicle, which has a direct impact on fuel
consumption: It is energy consumption.
What about the
chemical creation of the new fibres? What are the origins of those,
what are the ecological consequences?
simple biological fibres, you have oxygen, and you have carbon,
and you have water. The result is fuel mass. Of course these fibres
- and they can be used in a lot of applications, for example the
beer containers - are mostly out of natural products. The protection
is just rubber latex.
So if in the
future the subsidiary chemical industry which makes synthetic polymers
disappears because of oil or fossil fuel depletion, these wouldn't
be affected? Is that something which is part of a scenario?
I think oil
will disappear as a primary fuel, as a primary energy supply. Just
burning oil is the most stupid thing you can do, and I think it's
going more rapidly than we think, because the price of crude oil
is almost the same as thirty-forty years ago. If the price had risen
equal to Brent, for example, then we would have triple the price
nowadays. At some point, people will begin to understand that oil
can never be saved to produce precious and high performance materials
- to make products . That's adding to the cost. But after a lifetime
of using the new products you can recycle or re-use the material.
Some consumables, for example - packed bottles - are used in a lot
of applications, such as in making cloths and fabrics. And in the
US it is very popular to have recycled coca-cola bottles. So in
terms of plastics, the efficient part can be re-used quite easily,
and if it isn't, you can burn it, and from that burnt oil you can
also use its coleric content.
Do you think
designers are becoming more and more aware of these issues?
they are at college. Maybe in the automotive industry in Europe,
there is the public interest and the political need. It is becoming
more popular, but it's a marketing instrument. Creating green cars
for instance, if you look at the cars, they are not green at all.
The fuel consumption is not diminished; The weight is not diminished.
So there is a lot of talking, but in reality it's a very heavy,
stupid product. One thing we have to do, is to develop electronic
vehicle highways; it's important, because people will always travel.
The car is now an instrument and the driver is the intellect. It
must change so the car is the intellect and the driver the instrument;
smart cars - with no safety problems or precautions any longer.
You can easily control the speed, but only after programming what
you are going to do first; calculating how to go and when to go.
All this will come very quickly because it's not going to be possible
to create more highways. I always compare it to the moment before
we had portable telephones a few years ago, and now everybody is
using them. And the Net was built in a very short period. And I
have a feeling the creation of smart guidance of cars will happen
soon. The technologies are available. Governments are financing
the research and feel the need, because you can triple the capacity
of highways, this way, very easily.
How about the
For the moment
people feel it is too expensive. With cars it's difficult, because
you need the fuel cells, their full development, and electric cars.
I can never
work out how serious a problem, fossil fuel running out, is.
it's typical of any commercial action, including the exploring of
oil fields, which is just a slash and burn approach. Because the
stockholders need profits. Once the price begins to decline everybody
starts to produce more.
Do you see the
Lightness movement in the traditon of Buckminster Fuller?
Yes, of course.
He was a great thinker, a visionary man.
Do you think
it's come straight out of that trajectory?
Well, I think
a lot of people were concerned, but he was one of the great guys
who made this future so vivid, thirty or forty years ago.
Do you get people
contacting you from the traditional Ecodesign communities, the ones
who are involved in traditional materials?
No. The feeling
I get from ecodesign people, from what I've seen, is that their
driving power is idealism. They do not understand it is the market
that determines, rather than idealism. In my opinion I don't understand
why Greenpeace is so against nuclear power. It's not rational to
skip possibilities in energy supply for the simple answer. If Greenpeace
was completely against carbon, then they would be right, because
there are more people in coal-mining, in coal-burning, and in working
with coal, in the energy supply system.
Do you have
any dialogue with people in Greenpeace or other similar groups?
Ja, one time.
Once I had a dialogue in a conference. They had designed a three-litre
car. Which meant you needed only three litres of fuel to travel
one hundred kilometres. They made the initial mistake, in my opinion,
of using a popular car. Well, if you want to succeed in introducing
a new technology to bring a momentum to the thinking, you need status
in a product. Instead of it being a popular car, you need to create
a very expensive car. Because people, when they buy cars spend much
more money than they need, as they are attracted by the car as a
status symbol. Apart from "Skoda" and "Lada" people who are very
particular people! So you have to create the three-litre Ferrari.
Some groups are too emotional, they're not always smart and rational.
But of course I like it, anyhow, that people are involved, and put
pressure on for change. It's important.
How about Factor
Four? Are their energy use changes realistic?
can be only done here, by changing the behaviour of people. If we
create a light which saves thirty percent in energy people start
to use them. We have very strange behaviour. We are growing tomatoes
and cucumbers in warehouses. We have to grow them in areas where
we have free solar energy, where they belong in fact. So we need
to think more globally. All the things that the world uses must
be produced in-house; it needs to change. Grapes should be grown
by people in the right area for grapes to be grown. Another example
is livestock. In Holland, we rear pigs all over the place. They
are sold for a few guilders a kilo, and then they are transported
to Italy, where they are made into sausages selling for sixteen
guilders a kilo. It's crazy.
on the brink of a new industrial revolution, Beukers, A. Proceedings
of the Third Workshop on Materials Science, Hanoi, 1999
the inevitable renaissance of energy structures, Beukers and van
Hinte, Rotterdam 1999, p 17
explored at the The Doors of Perception conference and the website
can be visited @ www.doorsofperception.com