Where it all began: Developing a sustainable alternative to tropical hardwood

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Blogs, Sustainability

An interview with Marc Schneider PhD, inventor of Kebony’s innovative Dual Modification™ technology

As Kebony, the leading global producer of environmentally friendly and long-lasting alternatives to tropical hardwoods, seeks to continue its positive global impact under the leadership of newly appointed CEO, Tom Paemeleire, the Norwegian technology company looks back at where it all began and what inspired the creation of this successful technology that has been enjoyed by so many around the world.

Tom Paemeleire

Tom Paemeleire, CEO of Kebony explains: “For over twenty-five years, continuous technological development has enabled Kebony to offer an outstanding range of market leading sustainable wood products, while at the same time setting a precedent for sustainable technologies to create a new normal for the global construction industry.”

“Persistence in promising applied scientific research is the bedrock of modern ESG investment practice, and it will only become more significant to the international community as the demand for sustainable technology grows.”

Although Kebony was founded in 1997, the scientific origins of its innovative Dual Modification™ technology can be traced even further back to the work of Canadian scientist Marc Schneider who was awarded a PhD from the College of Forestry at Syracuse University, New York, in 1978. Marc describes his remarkably contemporary motivations that would inspire what became the patented Kebony technology used in the present day.

Marc Schneider

Marc Schneider states: “Using sustainable wood to reduce deforestation and the pressure on tropical woods was the fundamental reason for me to work on this technology.”

Marc began his scientific career research into technologies that could offer the world a sustainable and industrially viable substitute to tropical hardwood building products, in order to reduce the deforestation of the planet’s precious CO2 sinks and as such, help the world to reduce its carbon emissions.

In the late 1980s, Marc came across seemingly abandoned work involving the treatment of sustainably sourced softwood species, such as pine, as part of a two-stage wood polymerisation process. He explains that “by impregnating the wood with renewable, furfuryl-based liquids, and heating the wood to solidify the liquids, the properties of the softwood are transformed to replicate the durability, dimensional stability, and aesthetic qualities of tropical hardwoods.”

Reflecting on his early attempts to refine the process, which were thwarted by the same technical issues that his predecessors experienced, Marc went on to find success. “The uniqueness of this forgotten technology intrigued me. Producing a wood rich in colour like tropical hardwoods and sourced from renewables, promised to result in a potentially valuable material, but the inner part of each treated wood piece remained unpenetrated. In an attempt to overcome the limited penetration, I developed a catalyst system that was more compatible with the wood. The resulting formulation was reduceable with water, allowing control of the final amount of polymer in the wood. These developments became the basis of what has since become the Kebony technology.”

Over the next ten years, in collaboration with a team of fellow researchers at the University of New Brunswick in Canada, various companies were formed to advance the promising technology beyond pilot scale. However, these early attempts lacked progress because of insufficient investment in research and development, production capabilities and commercialisation. As Marc summarises, “overcoming this gap required marketing, further product development and investment in production facilities.”

In 1997, Marc met Simen Gjolsjo, a visiting researcher from the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research (NIBIO), who introduced the promising technology to a group of Norwegian wood producers. That same year Wood Polymer Technologies AS (WPT) was formed to make use of the technology, and shortly after the new millennium, WPT adopted its present-day name – Kebony – a commercial name selected to be unique and to suggest a connection to a well-known, dark-coloured tropical hardwood.

The company has since grown into the leading global producer of sustainably sourced wood and has committed itself to long-term research and development funding to build on the IP purchased from Marc in 2003. Kebony now has a world-class, in-house R&D department.

Today, Kebony holds approximately 60 active patents, while Kebony cladding and decking products can be found featured in architectural projects in over 100 countries around the world. Uses range from private home renovations to major cultural regeneration schemes, including award-winning projects at Battersea Power Station (London, United Kingdom), Tempelhof Aiport (Berlin, Germany) and Pier 26 at Hudson River Park (New York, United States).

Kebony opened its first factory in Skien, Norway, in 2009, and a second European-based manufacturing facility in Flanders, Belgium, in 2018, doubling the company’s annual production capacity from 20,000 m3 to 40,000 m3. The company calculates an estimated emissions saving of 143,000 metric tons of CO2 if Kebony products had been substituted in place of the total US and EU sales output of Ipe hardwood materials in 2022. In the same period, Kebony spent €1.45 million on research and development to further master its world-class selection of quality sustainable products.

Reflecting on the success of Kebony, and the challenges now faced by entrepreneurs looking to introduce new, essential clean technologies in context of the burgeoning climate crisis, Marc Schneider highlights the co-operation between international scientists and the continued confidence of key investors, as a cornerstone of the company’s modern success, commenting:

“My previous experiences attempting to commercialize this technology had all stalled, mainly because of the impatience of investors. They expected high profits quickly from technologies that were at the small pilot plant stage. But that was not possible until sufficient investment was procured to overcome the gap between pilot and commercial stage. For Kebony, probably the most important factor was the loyalty of the investors and decision makers who have continued to support Kebony throughout its existence.”

Tom Paemeleire, CEO of Kebony, concurs with Marc’s assessment that a long-term vision for the Kebony technology is an essential function of its present-day impact: “Without Marc’s dedication to refining the technology and the reliable faith in investment and improvement, Kebony would not be in its present position leading the revolution for a greener, more sustainable global construction industry. We are immensely proud of the Kebony technology and Marc has been instrumental as a visionary and scientist to create something truly unique which has undoubtedly stood the test of time. At Kebony, we have developed a competent and well-equipped R&D department; we are always learning and remain committed to ongoing research and development which is fundamental to the success  of our business and the future of the industry.”

 

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