Lightness and Industry

Adriaan Beukers, one time Dutch rocket materials scientist, 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 is growing.

In Holland, 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 us.

'Lightness' 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 Energy 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 sustainability, 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 along a cul de sac. It has also 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 moving 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" . Which is where low-density materials come in.

Environmental research factories such as the Wuppertal Institute, original source for Factor Four thinking, 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 optimally constructed shape and form-wise, and the best use of the materials to reduce energy use, and lighten its load, this is smart thinking. As in 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: 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 is between 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 "weight-loads". 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 is difficult to miss. 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.

Adriaan Beukers 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 and colleagues, 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 transformation.

This was the starting point of a short conversation I had with Beukers during a break at the Lightness, the eponymous Doors of Perception conference, so-called after the design movement he helped to bring into being.

AB: Last 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.

OL: Were they receptive? And are projects being instigated as a result?

Yes, they 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.

That would be great! Are you actively looking for other countries as well?

Yes, very 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?

Yes, but 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 it's used?

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 to acceleration?

Yeah, but 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.

Regarding the 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 footprint these new materials make, and in analysing their life cycles?

Well, life 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 80/90% 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?

Well, with 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 industries, which make 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?

Only when 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 fossil-fuel side?

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.

I think, 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?

Energy use can be only done here, by changing the behaviour of people. If we create a light, which saves 30% 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.


1. Lightness, the inevitable renaissance of Minimum Energy Structures, Beukers and van Hinte, Rotterdam 1999, p 17

A version of this piece appeared in Fourth Door Review 5