Yasuhiro Karakawa, Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise (CSGE):
Talk about Komatsu Seiren’s new product, greenbiz®.
Mr. Okuya, Komatsu Seiren (Komatsu Seiren):
greenbiz® is a new ceramic material with unprecedented water absorption and retention capabilities. This material consists of three main components –cylindrical minute industrial waste called biomass cakes with a diameter of 3 μm (micrometer), porous diatom earth and clay. By mixing them and heating the amalgam to a temperature greater than 1,000℃, the substance is transformed into a special ceramic with sponge-like open cells with porous and ultra-microporous structures.
Its high water retention capability allows the material to hold more than 50% saturated moisture content while retaining its heat insulating capability. This feature allows the greenbiz® material to remain warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s hot. Since the material is made from inorganic and harmless material, it is eco-friendly; it is not combustible; and it can be crushed into fine particles to decompose.
You were originally a textile manufacturer. Why did you transition into ceramic manufacturing which seems unrelated to your primary business?
We have been running our textile business since it was established in 1943. As a textile manufacturer, we use approximately 25,000 tons of water per day to dye and process textile. As a result, we produce a tremendous amount of waste water. We had been seeking ways to dispose of this waste water in a responsible manner. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to dispose of it on our own because waste water is classified as industrial waste since it contains excess sludge, a so-called “biomass cake” containing excess microorganisms.
After a period of extensive research and study, we discovered that we could produce a unique square panel with small holes by mixing diatom earth and clay with this biomass cake. At first, we thought that this material would be difficult to use commercially because it retains moisture and is not good for some types of shared spaces and contemporary buildings. Moreover, it is heavy increasing transportation costs.
However, one researcher realized that this material could be utilized as “a microcapsule with very strong water absorption and retention capabilities,” a unique capability that could potentially be developed into a marketable product. After consulting a local university professor, we created a special ceramic material that was successfully developed into greenbiz®. We officially commercialized this material three years ago.
What are the market opportunities for this material?
We are actively promoting the utilization of greenbiz® for rooftop gardens. Due to its ability to absorb and retain great amounts of water (see this capability in the video), this material can be used to grow plants solely with rainwater, removing the need for regular irrigation and maintenance. Therefore, it substantially reduces the burden of preserving and maintaining a yard or garden. Also, water stored in ceramic containers made of greenbiz® has both a water-sprinkling effect due to evaporation and an inhibiting effect on the heat-island phenomenon.
In addition, since this material maintains warmth when it is cold and promotes cooling when it is hot, greenbiz® is gradually being introduced to build external walls for buildings such as residential homes. greenbiz® is also being crushed into particles and mixed with cement to create a heat insulating material for road surfaces such as sidewalks, open spaces and parking lots in order to minimize the heat island phenomenon.
It seems like there is a burgeoning interest in rooftop gardens in Japan, especially in urban areas such as Tokyo. How do you expect to survive in this competitive market?
It’s true that interest in environmental products and services has been increasing. Due to recent regulations making it compulsory to plant trees on newly constructed buildings in Japan, the market size for green rooftops has been steadily growing for the past decade. There are diverse initiatives promoting living roofs that range from planting greenery in small areas of rooftops to constructing gardens on the rooftops of large department stores.
In the midst of this diversity, we are confident that greenbiz® is practically differentiated in that it requires little maintenance and it has the strong insulating properties minimizing the heat island phenomenon. Our expectations are gradually proving true: greenbiz® received favorable reviews in the exhibition for eco-related materials held in San Francisco in November, 2012.
Please tell us about your recent initiatives and challenges.
We are planning to launch this product in overseas markets where environmental consciousness is more mature. As a result, we plan to actively participate in foreign exhibitions in countries such as Germany, Italy, Singapore and China. Given our desire to expand internationally, our greatest challenge is determining how to manufacture greenbiz® on foreign grounds since it is too heavy to be exported. Some things that we have to take into account include local licensing and investing in the appropriate manufacturing equipment. Additionally, we need to create a “local manufacturing, local consumption model” to ensure there is a market for our product.
We must also focus on our marketing strategy. Since there are numerous competitive products in the market, it’s important to determine how to build our brand reputation and make our products desirable.
Although we have yet to build the channel for the North American market, it is a strategic market. We will take meaningful steps to create the market, including building relationships with different players for strategic partnerships.
Note: This interview took place in January 2013. For more information about Komatsu Seiren visit their website at http://www.komatsuseiren.co.jp/en/index.html.