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Take a breath…

25 Jul 22 A Bristol-based entrepreneur has secured funding to start production of a low-carbon alternative to plasterboard. David Taylor reports

Nothing has done more to improve the process of interior fit-out than the invention of gypsum plasterboard – it’s very quick to install, it doesn’t create a mess and the finish is usually excellent.

Plasterboard, or drywall, was invented over 130 years ago by an American entrepreneur, Augustine Sackett. And although it was not until the mid-20th century that it really took off, when it did there was no going back – traditional lath-and-plaster was effectively history.

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Today, with the exception of ‘heritage’ refurbishment projects, gypsum plasterboard is the default solution to all interior wall and ceiling installations. It has only one disadvantage for today’s user and that is its environmental profile.

Rather like cement, gypsum is an energy-intensive material – in fact as a building product it is the biggest source of atmospheric carbon emissions after cement and steel, respectively. And in today’s construction industry that matters.

Soon, however, there might be a low-carbon alternative to gypsum plasterboard: a ‘carbon-absorbing’ equivalent comprising a core made from lime and food crop by-products sandwiched between two layers of recycled paper.

The product, called Breathaboard, is the brainchild of Tom Robinson, a former builder who developed the idea in 2014 for his MSc thesis as a student at the Centre for Alternative Technologies (CAT) in Wales.

A subsequent study by the University of Bath, co-authored by Professor Peter Walker of the university’s department of architecture & civil engineering and director of BRE’s Centre of Innovative Construction Materials, established the desirability of an alternative to gypsum.

The study estimated that gypsum plasterboard causes approximately 3.5% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions and that production of plasterboard accounts for 67% of its life-cycle global warming potential.

“Therefore there is a significant scope for a board with a lower production life-cycle impact,” observed the team at Bath.

Robinson is now hoping to exploit this pent-up demand with Breathaboard. Prior to studying at CAT, Robinson had spent a lot of his time travelling, climbing and surfing around the world. He worked as a builder between trips to finance them and eventually started his own business in the heritage building sector carrying out restoration work.

Now he has set up a new business, called Adaptavate, that has just secured £2.16m of funding to build a pilot manufacturing plant for the new product.

The new funding will allow Adaptavate to build a pilot production line in the Bristol area, enhance its research and development laboratory facilities, and to complete testing and licensing. Breathaboard is expected to be available in small batches by the end of the year.

Instead of using gypsum, Breathaboard is made from natural lime reinforced with vegetable fibre derived from hemp and oil-seed rape and sheathed with recycled paper.

For at least two generations, lime has languished unloved by the construction industry which instead embraced the more desirable qualities of alternative cement- and gypsum-based products.

But in recent years, lime has enjoyed something of a renaissance. Although cement and gypsum are stronger and cure extremely quickly, lime has a far better environmental profile because it absorbs atmospheric CO2 as it cures. As a result, it is seen increasingly as a useful contributor to the reduction of carbon emissions.

Robinson intends to use some of the new funding to further explore how to extract more carbon from the atmosphere – in particular, capturing the carbon emissions from other industrial processes and using that to convert the calcium oxide into calcium carbonate for his Breathaboard product.

The study carried out at Bath also concluded that Breathaboard is capable of improving air quality inside buildings – and poor air quality is another hot topic.

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The team at Bath compared the mechanical and hygrothermal properties of Breathaboard with those of conventional gypsum plasterboard using standard test procedures for the gypsum product to measure thermal conductivity, vapour permeability and moisture buffering.

It found that while Breathaboard didn’t quite match the mechanical performance of gypsum plasterboard, it had up to five times better moisture buffering properties and a significantly lower thermal conductivity.

Not surprisingly, Breathaboard will be more expensive than gypsum plasterboard, which is currently produced in huge quantities. But Robinson is confident that, with growing pressure to reduce our carbon emissions and improve indoor air quality, Breathaboard is sure to find its niche in the market.

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Funding green innovation

Adaptavate’s £2.16m of development funding has been provided by Low Carbon Innovation Fund 2 (LCIF2) and Counteract, a sustainable development investment consultancy.

Several climate-focused funds including Perivoli Innovations and One Planet Capital also participated, alongside investors identified simply as “well-known figureheads from the construction industry”.

Adaptavate has also secured a grant from Innovate UK in excess of £800,000.

“This investment will enable us to revolutionise the way construction materials are made without forcing any change on end users,” says Robinson.

“We’re using industrial carbon absorbing processes to produce a healthier, high-performance product that is better for the health of people and planet and a genuine drop-in replacement for gypsum plasterboard.”

Breathaboard in action

Although still very much in the development phase, Adapavate’s Breathaboard – and its loose plaster equivalent, Breathaplasta – has already found an eager customer.

The UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) piloted the use both Adaptavate products in the 2017 refurbishment of its London office.

The project set out to create a benchmark for low-carbon office refurbishments while delivering a space with high well-being credentials.

Existing materials were extensively reused (for example old glazing was reused for whiteboard surfaces and office furniture was reupholstered rather than replaced).

“The client’s aim was to set an industry example by having the lowest-carbon office refurbishment in the UK, with a super-healthy internal space to create a pleasant and productive working environment,” says Robinson.

Breathaboard and Breathaplasta were used as a complete system in the board room and in the meeting room spaces to achieve these aims. The embodied carbon footprint was 22% below a comparable “standard” fit-out and the lowest ever recorded in the UK, says Adaptavate.

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