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BIOM: from rice waste materials to sustainable construction materials

After rice has been harvested, the remaining straw stubble is left on the fields of the Ecuadorian rice-growers. Now, instead of burning the straw, which has harmful consequences for the environment, Engineer Nicolas Salmon, from YES Innovation, aims to use this waste material. Thanks to his BIOM project, he is producing sustainable insulation material. And this is also benefitting the local farming community.

Rice production flourishes close to the Ecuadorian coast. Rice, which is so characteristic of Latin-American cuisine, is widely cultivated in the countryside around the tourist city of Guayaquil. However, after the grains of rice have been harvested, the remaining stubble of the plants is either thrown away or burned immediately.

Nicolas Salmon and Grace Yepez, who work with the Franco-Ecuadorian family business YES Innovation, aim to use the rice stubble. Nicholas trained as an engineer and Grace is an architect. During a Skype conversation from Quito, the capital of Ecuador, Nicolas explains “Using our technical training, we are looking for sustainable solutions in the field of construction. There are not many sustainable insulation materials, so it’s really interesting to take a new look at something that is basically a waste product.”

Replacing ecological time-bombs

The development of new materials to meet increasing demand for greater sustainability in the construction business is the objective that BIOM (Biomaterials for Construction Materials) has set itself. “In the future, we hope to be able to replace as much as possible of the insulation materials currently used” says Nicolas in his ten-year plan, thinking of materials such as glass wool and polystyrene. Surely it would be preferable to use natural products instead?

In a country such as Ecuador, insulation material is essential says Nicholas. “There are frequent earthquakes and this is a heavy burden for the cities, because the structural integrity of most of the buildings is not sufficiently good to resist the earthquakes. Structures are usually of heavy concrete blocks that are extremely dangerous when the earth begins to tremble. They crumble over time, thanks to the effects of the wind and rain. When there is an earthquake, there is nothing to stop the movement of these heavy concrete structures. They are, in effect, time bombs”.

“As an alternative, we are proposing the use of more lightweight walls”, explains Nicolas. “They are composed of an outer cladding, an insulation material and an interior cladding. This combination insulates against sound and stops the heat from entering, but at the same time, it is safe and lightweight in the event of a landslide.

Circular economy

According to Nicolas, rice straw is ideal as an insulating material for lighter walls. It is a solid fibre, but it also lends itself to a really simple process of transformation into insulation material.  It does not require oil, as do other insulating materials and there are very few CO2 emissions throughout the production process.

Limiting CO2 emissions is one of the reasons that Nicolas wants to work specifically with rice stubble. “When rice straw is burned – which is what happens if it is not transformed into biomaterial – it greatly pollutes the atmosphere. And this happens rather frequently. Throughout the world, rice stubble is burned. Indeed, according to data produced by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Resources Institute, the impact of burning rice stubble is equivalent to the CO2 emissions of Germany.”

By using rice stubble instead of burning it, BIOM hopes to economise 3,200 kilos of CO2 in 2019. This will be possible if they can develop the first 1000 square metres of insulating material this year. Next year, they hope to increase production to 25,000 m2. This would amount to an economy of 80 tonnes of CO2.

According to Nicolas, “Confining waste to the incinerator is an outdated practice. In future we shall be thinking more and more about the circular economy. In Europe, this is already happening. There, we have been talking about the circular economy for years. Here, in Ecuador, the movement has only just begun. Bottles in PET can be recycled, but products such as paper are not collected separately and this is without talking about sorting waste. This has to change. As consumers, we consume so many products. It’s time to think about how we use our raw materials.”

“There are not many sustainable insulation materials, so it’s really interesting to take a new look at something that is basically a waste product.”

Good for farmers

In addition to his ecological concerns, Nicolas is also thinking about the well-being of the farmers. BIOM would like to create additional jobs in the countryside and also ensure that the farmers are paid correctly.

“As architects, we don’t know much about farming”, admits Nicolas. “This is why we are working with CESA (Central Ecuatoriana de Servicios Agrícolas, the Ecuadorian Centre for Farming Services), a local NGO. They have put us in touch with some fifty farming families.  They have also provided us with the factory where we produce the insulation material. We prefer to work with a local NGO rather than a local business, so as to ensure that the working conditions as well as the well-being of the workers are respected.”

“These fifty families are able to earn a living through their rice production, but they often have poor living conditions. They lead a rather austere life” says Nicolas. “They earn enough to pay for their basic rice production, but nothing more. They live in small houses on their land, but they have no reserves if they suffer any setbacks. By also paying the farmers for their rice straw, which they would otherwise burn, they can live a little more comfortably.”

Women versus  machos

After discussion with the NGO CESA, Nicolas decided to work together with the women. “In the capital of Quito, where we are based, and in the mountains, women have made significant strides. Women also play an increasingly important role in the family of the indigenous population, but on the coast, where our production facilities are, there is still a lot of machismo.”

By ‘machismo’, Nicolas is referring to the typical macho men, who prefer their women not to go out to work. “They prefer their women to stay at home, which means that the women in the coastal region often remain alone at home. CESA hopes to change this and it is part of their philosophy and their strategy to involve more and more women. So in this way, we are also making a contribution to the fifth objective of the Millennium Development Goals to achieve sexual equality and female empowerment.”

Looking to the future

“Rice straw is widely available in the fields of Ecuador and this is why BIOM wants to focus on this material. In future, other natural products could be added. We are thinking, for instance, about coconut fibres. Fibres from other products that we know less well, such as sedge, abaca and cabuya, could also be used to produce insulation materials, but these are all future projects.”

“Who knows where BIOM will go in the future. To start with, we are concentrating on Latin America: Ecuador, but also Colombia and Peru.” Is Nicolas also looking to Asia, another continent that produces a lot of rice? “There is a lot of rice and a massive amount of straw burning. What we do with BIOM can provide a solution to pollution. The idea is thus possible. But the difficulty would be in transporting the construction machines.”

“Perhaps in the future, there will be pirates on the coast who will take the idea to the Asian market!”, fears Nicolas, although he doesn’t really worry about this. “If we have some competition, that means one thing above all, namely that our idea works!”