In Ghana, like many tropical countries around the world, people widely use and export coconuts for their fruit, milk, and cooking oil. The husks are thrown away by the millions, leaving to waste what might instead be transformed into a multifaceted building material.
“The coconut is not just any waste product; it has a lot of great properties,” said Josh Draper, an architect and clinical professor at the Center for Architecture, Science, and Ecology (CASE,) which hosts Rensselaer’s graduate program in Built Ecologies. “The question is ‘what if we could take it and make it into something useful and something beautiful for our buildings?’”
For seven years, Rensselaer researchers at CASE in New York City and in the School of Architecture on the Troy campus have been developing building products from coconuts and other agricultural waste as a sustainable, low-energy alternative to plywood and other materials made with synthetic adhesives. They are using coconuts to create non-toxic wall modules and an acoustical panel system that can help cool buildings passively.
The research epitomizes the goals of The New Polytechnic, a new paradigm for learning and research at Rensselaer that addresses difficult and complex global challenges, the need for interdisciplinarity and true collaboration, and the use of the latest tools and technologies, many of which are developed at Rensselaer.
Ghana is a target country because construction is booming, building materials are largely imported, and coconuts are commonly used and their by-products are discarded.
Supported with numerous grants, the research has taken Draper—and co-principal investigators Demetrios Comodromos and Gustavo Crembil, doctoral candidate Mae-Ling Lokko, and several architecture undergraduates—to Ghana several times, and includes three more trips this year.
The wall panels have been prototyped and are in the early stages of patent review. They will see their first public demonstration next month at the Advanced Energy Conference in New York City. And, in August, members of the Rensselaer team will build a kiosk with the panels to display at the Chale Wote Street Art Festival in Accra, Ghana. The festival is a forum for showcasing experimental ideas in art and design.
The coconut is not just any waste product; it has a lot of great properties. The question is ‘what if we could take it and make it into something useful and something beautiful for our buildings?’”—Josh Draper
Among other things, the researchers will weigh how people respond to the look and feel of the material, along with its appeal as a clean, low-cost building alternative. Lokko, who is from Ghana, encountered mixed reactions when she worked on the panels during her 2013 co-op term.
“People loved the concept but when it came to actually taking the waste and upcycling it, for lack of a better word, they saw it as a ‘poor man’s building material,’” said Lokko. “In a place like Ghana, which is rapidly developing and trying to project a modern image, how do we make this material cool again?”
In response, the researchers modified the texture to include dimples. Draper said during a recent visit to Ghana he saw a positive response. “It’s something you can’t help but touch,” he said.
The ropelike coir fiber extracted from a coconut husk, he explained, is very strong. And the coir can be pressed with the coconut’s pith, a dust in the husk that acts as a natural binder, to form a biocomposite that is as strong as plywood.
In addition, Draper said, the coir and pith are desiccants, which remove moisture and pollutants from the air. CASE researchers and other Rensselaer collaborators are developing an acoustical panel with these materials, which could save energy and money by reducing loads on air-conditioning.
With support from CASE Director Anna Dyson, graduate students from around the world have worked toward creating products from agricultural waste that can help reduce the energy buildings gobble up. In addition to the current initiative in Africa, projects have included modular housing in Jamaica and India.
People loved the concept but when it came to actually taking the waste and upcycling it, for lack of a better word, they saw it as a ‘poor man’s building material.’ In a place like Ghana, which is rapidly developing and trying to project a modern image, how do we make this material cool again?”—Mae-Ling Lokko
Lokko said she came to CASE in 2011 specifically for the opportunity to take part in such research. Following her initial study of coconuts and their potential, she took part in a professional co-op term with renowned Ghanian architect David Adjaye. She worked in his office and at a coconut processing factory.
Since then, Lokko, Draper, Comodromos, Crembil, and other Rensselaer researchers have advanced the technology using grants from CASE and Rensselaer, and through two NEXUS-NY Clean Energy accelerator grants, which support new energy ventures in upstate New York. The visit to Accra later this year, which will include 12 architecture students, is funded partly with a grant from the Rotch Foundation. CASE partner Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill has also funded the travel.
The Rensselaer researchers have also partnered with e2e Materials in Ithaca and with Ecovative, the Troy-based manufacturer started by Rensselaer alumni, which uses mushroom-based binders in place of synthetic resins.
Lokko expects to complete her dissertation later this year. Eventually, she hopes to work in hot-humid climates developing clean energy building materials.
But her first stop is Troy, where she and Nina Wilson, also a CASE Ph.D. candidate, have started a company, AMBIS—for Agricultural by-product Modular Building Integrated Systems—to manufacture clean building panels, and later, systems to remediate indoor air.
“We aim to see AMBIS technologies used in hot-humid developing areas like Accra,” Lokko explained. “But in the near-term, the exciting stuff happening in upstate New York around biomaterials and building airflow technologies is incredibly unique. We have a lot more in common with places like Accra, Mumbai, and Manila than one would think.”