IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Mark Lepelaar (NPSP)
Back to biobased
By: Bénine Buijze
The RAF, Ford and Trabant already used biocomposites in their vehicles
If anyone is a pioneer of sustainable construction in the Netherlands, it is Mark Lepelaar, founder and co-owner of NPSP. NPSP is an innovative company in biocomposites and sustainable building products. They are primarily active in the construction industry, challenging the status quo. But for Lepelaar, it all started with a catamaran made from flax. It was made by the same company that won the World Solar Challenge in 2001 with solarcar Nuna 1 and Lepelaar thought: “Why am I not involved in this?”
After obtaining his industrial design degree at the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft), Lepelaar started working in the field of sustainable energy and the integration of solar panels in the built environment. He later learned that the company behind Nuna 1 also made boats out of flax. “I was triggered by that. It was the first time I was captivated by a bio-based material.” He got involved with the company and they quickly realised: sailing boats are not the perfect business model. Can we use this technology for other products, too? As a product designer, Lepelaar was challenged to wrap his mind around this issue. Because he was working in the construction industry, it came to him rapidly. NPSP started making products for the building sector as well.
Nowadays, the company is active in making biocomposite materials, product development, product engineering and researching sustainable materials for biocomposites. But what are biocomposites? Companies like NPSP make sturdy long lasting materials that are made from natural fibres like flax, hemp or bamboo and bind the fibres by adding a resin. The natural fibres can be grown or they can be found in waste streams from different industries, such as the agriculture or the water cycle. The binder is not yet fully biobased, but sustainable companies such as NPSP are getting closer to developing a biocomposite that is a 100% biobased and preferably waste based as well.
Back to basics
Although Lepelaar was quite the pioneer in making biocomposites in the Netherlands back in 2003, biobased materials are nothing new. Looking at buildings made in poorer rural areas, people have been constructing shelters with mud, wood and grass for centuries. What’s newer, is working with engineered biomaterials, although that’s not as 21st century as you might suspect. Parts of the RAF Supermarine Spitfire plane used in the Second World War were already made out of biocomposites. And both Ford and the Trabant company used biocomposites in their vehicles.
NPSP has also dabbled in the vehicle game. In the company’s showroom a scooter is on display that’s made out of hemp. The structure is easily made in a composite and has proven its strength by accident. “During a demonstration, the scooter crashed into a police car. The car had thousands of euro’s worth of damage. The scooter was only damaged on one part, and that was a metal part!” Lepelaar tells the story gleefully. “If you look at the material of the scooter on its own, it is not as strong as metal, but it can beat aluminium on specific stiffness. In the process of making the scooter you make a monocoque structure and so you use the shaping possibilities to optimise the strength of the construction. This is easier to achieve with a biocomposite than with a metal and results in a durable scooter,” says Lepelaar, teaching us another advantage of biocomposites.
Fan of legislation
Although NPSP regularly works on fun projects like the scooter, the main focus of the company is the construction industry. But working in this industry has its challenges. There are a lot of rules and regulations to consider when developing a new product. Is it hard to navigate these guidelines when you are in the biocomposite industry? “It’s tricky, but it also gives a framework in which we must work. If we have to make something for a building, we have to meet different demands. We know we have to make it fire safe, for example. It’s simply part of the deal,” Lepelaar says. “What’s complicated are the tests to get a certain certification, which is expensive and time consuming. When you are working with circular and waste-based materials you are making new materials and you need to get certifications for all new mixes you make.” So, legislation challenges biocomposite entrepreneurs quite a bit, but most of all, Mark Lepelaar is a fan: “When I look at the use of biobased materials, the construction sector is quite conservative. There are a lot of large interests at stake. That’s understandable. But I think that the time is right to prove that it can be done with biocomposites. This idea is landing in politics as well and that’s good. There’s a need for stricter environmental regulation as well, to speed up change in the building industry.”
The student becomes the teacher
27 years after graduating from the TU Delft, Lepelaar is now a guest lecturer at his alma mater. A lot has changed since then. Sustainability was leading its own life in the curriculum in the 1990s, but nowadays it has been more integrated within the institution of TU Delft. “At that time, it was not a mainstream part of the university. Nowadays it’s an integrated part of all research groups. Whether they talk about strategy, business development or about construction or design. It’s integrated all throughout the curriculum. All students, even if they don’t take a personal interest in sustainability, have to take it into account while doing their assignments.” Lepelaar says. “It’s like the fire safety regulations in construction: whether you like it or not, whether you think it’s interesting or not: you have to implement it. In that way, sustainability has become very institutionalized in the TU Delft.”
One lesson Lepelaar wants to instil in his students is that implementing sustainability in the world is an important thing to do. But that does not mean that it’s easy. “It’s a very tough thing: making the world a better place. You need to have big stamina and long endurance. You really have to give it time, but it’s super interesting and a really fun thing to do. In some way, you’re kind of an inventor or adventurer, looking for new solutions and doing things that really make a change.”
“In some way, your kind of an inventor or adventurer, looking for new solutions”
Curious about Mark's whole story? Mark Lepelaar (NPSP) on constructing in a biobased way