BioPanel: Unlocking the Benefits of Seaweed as an Eco-Friendly Building Material
Cape Town is blessed with a rich abundance of beaches. For many people who visit them, however, seaweed washed up on the sand is simply a nuisance. But, industrial design student, Alejandra Olivera, has transformed this nuisance into a passion.
Creating waves with her research into the use of seaweed as a ecological raw material source, Alejandra, an Argentine national, has developed BioPanel. Using processed seaweed and a proprietary process; this innovation produces a strong, cost-effective, eco-friendly and non-flammable insulation material.
Having been selected as one of the 23 Better Living Challenge finalists, Alejandra explains the need for this type of construction material in South Africa: “BioPanel is manufactured specifically to address the insulation needs of low-income households. Most materials used to insulate their dwellings are highly flammable. BioPanel, on the other hand, effectively reduces existing fire hazards in high-density urban areas. As a result, it offers a far safer and more cost-effective solution.”
Elaborating on BioPanel’s benefits, Alejandra says: “Seaweed’s natural characteristics make it an ideal insulation material. BioPanel’s manufacturing process uses waste, and the final product is fully biodegradable. Rather than harvesting the seaweed from the ocean, it is sourced from a local kelp factory as waste. Adopting this low-technology approach was a strategic decision designed to reduce the overall treatment and production costs.”
Alejandra is coming to the end of her BTech Industrial Design degree at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) this year. At a time when most young adults are just finding their feet in the world, one has to ask where this talented designer gets so much inspiration and confidence in her ideas. “Sustainability is fundamental to my design approach,” she explains. “I draw on bio-mimicry for inspiration, using nature and natural systems to reduce the overall environmental impact of my designs.”
Alejandra’s initial research trips into Cape Town’s Langa township − which exposed her to the housing structures that so many South Africans live in − proved instrumental to shaping BioPanel’s development. “For a start, my visits revealed that these dwellings are generally weak, and that electricity is not readily available in all areas,” she recalls. “My trips also revealed that many people in BioPanel’s target market use minibus taxis as their main mode of transportation.”
As Alejandra notes: “Many design solutions aimed at the low-income housing market take no account of the end user’s needs. BioPanel, by contrast, places these needs at the core of its design. Given that most of its target users travel by public transport, BioPanel had to be light.”
So, on your next trip to the beach, think twice when dismissing washed-up kelp as a nuisance. Chances are that it could be the future of sustainable building materials.
Filmed & Edited By: Meghan Adams