By Eckhart Beatty
Robert Noble, founder of Noble Environmental Technologies and its flagship technology ECOR, is an environmental design pioneer with a career-long interest in sustainable design, eco-materials, and cleantech. Trained as an architect, Noble has established a track record introducing ecological materials and forms as well as sustainable industrial practices. No newcomer to innovation with environmental systems, Noble has been a pioneer of eco-design-oriented practices long before it was popular. Ecor’s designs invoke a fresh sense of the built environment rooted in ecologically deep perspectives.
Noble has received numerous accolades from the business community, including the Edison Award for Environmental Achievement. Today, Noble is focusing on marketing appropriate construction technology strategically, as opposed to the latest architectural design per se. Says Noble, “We always can get excited about architecture. What you don’t have are architects, industrialists, and entrepreneurs who are actually commercializing solutions that have a broader-scale potential for solving architects’ problems.”
Exactly what is Ecor?
Ecor is a cellulose fiber-based material manufactured much the same way paper is. It is founded upon many years of rigorous scientific research at major research labs in universities and government, alike.
Describe highlights of the Ecor manufacturing process.
It’s essentially a hybrid between making paper and plywood. Although production is proprietary, in general terms we call it “three-dimensional engineered molded fiber” (3DEMF). John Hunt, a researcher at the Forest Products Lab, has described its production processes in published papers. Government-funded studies of these materials have demonstrated strength advantages of 3DEMF panels of 300+% over conventional commodity panel products like particle board; gains of some 1,200% were observed at just 30% additional weight when high-strength resins or additives are introduced. Also, these panels will be less expensive to produce than traditional building materials in the not-so-distant future.
Kenaf is the strongest natural raw material we have ever worked with, and it is non-toxic. Related to toxicity, in testing Ecor, it was found to be below the most stringent federal thresholds (“no VOC”) for off-gassing. Unlike particle board, bound together by noxious compounds such as formaldehyde, Ecor uses only the natural tendencies of cellulose fiber to bind it.
One of the best raw materials I’ve seen comes from—no kidding—cow manure, named “bovine processed fiber” (BPF), which is actually just one of countless wastes for Ecor fabrication. Given the versatility of raw materials, we don’t need to be dependent on any one. That’s the beauty of our waste-based business model. Today we are observing interest from a variety of industries. We’ve had fruitful discussions with major brands in entertainment, furniture, hospitality, automotive, and others.
You mention aerospace on your website.
Yes. We are confident that we will demonstrate Ecor’s potential in aerospace, too. By impregnating Ecor with resin, one can create very strong, light-weight materials for various parts of wings and fuselage.
How do architects like working with Ecor?
Every architect wants to work with environmentally friendly—and versatile—materials. Ecor has proven its ability to replicate the shapes of practically any imaginable form—at low cost.
What level of sustainable building rating would Ecor products attain considering the “cradle-to-cradle” model devised by McDonough and Baumgart, the pioneers of such systems?
We are confident it will capture the very highest ratings in every current and future material rating system for every reason conceivable. In our case, it’s really simple. First of all, as I’ve indicated, it is 100% recycled and non-toxic. We can use post-consumer as well as bovine fiber, too—though not always 100% off the bat.
Then of course, there’s the matter of raw materials sourcing. Our ingredients simply don’t have any better use than to be employed within our panels. Also, we could realistically situate a factory within say, 100 miles of any agricultural production region, and then near their final markets.
Do you consider Ecor to be a disruptive technology?
Yes, absolutely. When we produce panels with BPF and other agricultural fibers, Ecor will be considered a “farm-” not forest product. When Ecor is made using waste paper and cardboard, it becomes an “urban” product. Then all the big forest products companies may react negatively because of the product’s agricultural, or urban status—which they can’t control. What happens to their model when our panel products are superior to forest product-based panels and are produced on farms or in urban areas within 100-200 miles of final, local markets?
Also, it may very well prove to represent a major worldwide recycled paper, cardboard, and agricultural waste stream diversion. Using an almost limitless variety of natural raw materials, without additives or toxicity, Ecor is unique in practically every way. Finally, it’s also disruptive with respect to shape-making, color, and texture versatility, and low cost.
We feel that once the press gets the story, groups in places like Indonesia with serious waste problems to deal with will likely approach us to consider utilization of waste agricultural fibers such as sugar cane bagasse and other crops. Then we may get our R&D funded by foreign waste management firms.
In what demographic group would you place your greatest hope today?
Hollywood is a good bet; it needs Ecor badly. For years, it has put forth a strong message about its ecological commitment. But the industry has been front and center with the use of tropical wood such as luan plywood on stage sets. This has to change. Years ago, I spent time with actor and environmental activist Ed Begley Jr., as well as the late Dennis Weaver, who was very eco-committed. Both were intent on transforming the industry. Although the entertainment industry has changed over the years, Hollywood still works in only one way: “The star calls all the shots.”
We think, we hope, that stars—perhaps someone like Ed Begley, Brad Pitt, or Julia Louis Dreyfus—will continue to be the ones who really “drive this thing” by insisting on eco-friendly materials, like Ecor, for their film sets.
Eckhart is a business writer focusing on the acceleration of sustainability best practices in business by leveraging strategic alliances. He is participating with the Cleantech Open this year.