Carbon fiber has established itself as a wonder material in vehicle construction, with its mix of low weight and high strength being prized for many of the world's most advanced vehicles of land, sea and air. Austrian company Fipofix believes that it's identified a material better-suited to the high seas, saying that its specially processed volcanic fiber-based composite, more commonly known as basalt fiber, offers a better performance-price ratio than carbon fiber or fiberglass and can be recycled after use. The company is in the process of testing the material in some of the world's most extreme marine conditions.
Though basalt fiber isn't a household term like fiberglass or carbon fiber, it's not a new composite, either. According to a 2006 article published on CompositesWorld.com, basalt fiber was originally patented in the US in 1923. Toward the middle of the 20th century, it was given serious attention for military applications in the US and Soviet Union, but it wasn't until the breakup of the Soviet Union that it started seeing more use in non-military applications. Today, its production and use is concentrated largely in Eastern Europe and China. We don't see it often, but we did see it featured prominently in the interior of last year's Peugeot EXALT concept.
Fipofix's claimed innovation isn't so much in the material, then, but in the processing and application of that material. The company began as a 2009 collaboration between Austrian technology group Kapsch and Yacht Construction Consulting. The parties innovated a new way of processing brittle, touchy volcanic fibers into rugged, unidirectional fabric purpose-built for nautical use. They called the processing system "Fiber Positioning Fixation" (or Fipofix), submitted a patent application in 2011, then formed Fipofix GmbH.
"Positioning fibers without damaging them represents the greatest challenge in the manufacturing of composite materials," Kapsch explained in 2013. "Up to 40 percent of the filaments of a roving are damaged in previous processing methods, such as weaving, stapling and sewing, which results in decreased performance of the product under compressive and tensile loads. Fipofix bonds the positioned fibers to the respective matrix for the final processing of the fabric without using foreign materials for fixation, such as yarns, clamps or other adhesives that additionally weaken the part."
Fipofix believes the resulting volcanic fiber composite is optimally suited for nautical applications, stating that it is hydrophobic, UV- and heat-resistant, fireproof, and acid-proof, while creating a hard surface that can absorb vibration and shock. It's also a more eco-friendly solution, being sourced from a sustainable, natural material and being 100 percent recyclable, setting it apart from carbon fiber and fiberglass, which offer limited recycling potential. Another claim is that it offers a superior cost-benefit ratio compared to both fiberglass and notoriously high-priced carbon fiber.
All those properties look great on paper, but they're only valuable insomuch as Fipofix's UD volcanic fiber composite actually performs. With help from Yacht Construction Consulting, Fipofix built the "Proof of Principle" Open 16 sailing yacht to test the material out on the choppy high seas. The 16-ft (5.6-m) vessel's hull and deck were built from a sandwich construction with an inner and outer layer of Fipofix UD volcanic composite laminated to a balsa wood core. The keel fin was also crafted from Fipofix UD, while the mast and rigging used carbon, stainless steel and other materials. Augmenting the sail power was a small, 5-hp motor powered by a 55 Ah battery hooked up to a flexible solar panel mounted on the cabin roof.
Using basalt fiber in shipbuilding wasn't an unprecedented move at the time, as other boatyards, such as African Cats, had experimented with the material and even used it for production boats. However, it was still quite rare in the industry, and the Open 16 helped to draw attention to the material, its seaworthiness and the Fipofix fabric processing technology.
The Open 16 was baptized by fire, its first test being a 133-day voyage across the North Atlantic Ocean from Europe to North America and back, a total of 10,000 nautical miles (18,500 km). While the journey could have been disastrous if Fipofix UD didn't perform to expectations, it was instead highly successful. Not only did the yacht complete the journey through some harsh, trying storm conditions (it took place between November 2013 and July 2014), but under the captainship of Harald Sedlacek it set three claimed world records in the process. The company says that when the yacht landed in Les Sables d'Olonne, France to complete its voyage, its Fipofix structural elements and components were all in prime working condition, with no significant damage to be found.
While the "Proof of Principle" voyage was quite a notable feat for the new yacht and new material, Fipofix isn't done putting its volcanic-fiber construction through its paces. The material will be used in the construction of the STAR46, the sailing yacht that will serve as the basis of the all-new single-make Sailing the Arctic Race (STAR), of which Fipofix is a sponsor. Set to commence in 2017, the "extreme yacht race across the roof of the world" will see international sailing teams navigating the rough, cold, iceberg-littered waters of the Northwest Passage over the top mainland North America from New York to Victoria, BC. Race organizers call it the first-ever Arctic sailing race and it's positioned not only as an extreme test of man and vessel, but also as a way of shining light on the climate change that has made the waters navigable for such an event.
The first STAR event will begin in July 2017 and is expected to run until October of that same year. The event's organizers hope to hold the race every two years following the inaugural running. In addition to putting its own boat through another challenging trial, Fipofix and Yacht Construction Consulting are working with British Columbia's Philbrook's Boat Yard in building the STAR46.
Fipofix hopes to supply other nautical and industrial customers with its volcanic fiber composite. It says that the material can be adjusted in weight, breadth and length to meet individual customer needs, without high retooling costs. Beyond shipbuilding, Fipofix believes its material could find use in a variety of sporting equipment, including surfboards, waterskis and snowboards.
Basalt fiber has already found use in the snowboarding industry, as several manufacturers, including Lib Tech, use it in the construction of snowboards. In fact, I unknowingly rode one of Lib Tech's basalt fiber boards when I rented a Jamie Lynn Phoenix on a trip to the Alps earlier this month. I only found out about the basalt design when researching the material for this article – small world! I loved the board, but I can't say it was the basalt fiber that made the difference. Lib Tech has also integrated basalt into its surfboard line, announcing itself to be the first to do so back in 2012.
So again, Fipofix doesn't stand to be the very first to these markets, but it should find a receptive audience in industries always looking to save weight without compromising performance and durability.