Around a century ago, the biggest threat to the United States’ trees was deforestation: The logging industry cut down trees at will, and no structures existed to manage how they did so to minimize harm. The forests that contain old-growth trees like redwood and spruce are 91% deforested.
While deforestation is still a rampant problem now, we have more protections in place: The National Parks system protects swaths of forests, and private land managers are instructed to replant trees that are cut down for industry. None of that, though, can protect against climate change. Last year, the California wildfires burned 1.2 million acres of trees, many of them old-growth redwoods, throughout the state. Trees that are still standing have been dried out due to drought, and pose a constant risk for more fires.
But wood is still one of the most valuable commodities in the manufacturing and construction sectors. Joe Luttwak knows this personally: When he founded Blackbird guitars in 2006 in San Francisco, he wanted to do things differently. While most classical guitars are made of old-growth wood, “our idea was to make non-wood guitars for high performance from the beginning,” he tells Fast Company. “That was a pretty novel idea back then.”
At first, Luttwak and his small team fashioned guitars out of carbon fiber–a very light material that’s more weather-resistant than and seemingly less resource-intensive. But carbon fiber is quite wasteful to produce–because unlike aluminum, it can’t be melted down and reformed, scraps of material that don’t make it into products end up tossed, where they’re difficult to recycle due to their complex chemical makeup.
Luttwak wanted to create a wood substitute to beat carbon fiber–one that would more closely resemble old-growth wood, both in terms of strength and performance and biodegradability. What they landed on is something called Ekoa–a material made from just two carbon-negative materials: flax linen fiber and plant-based resin. The material is highly moldable, and both lighter and more sustainable than carbon fiber. Luttwak launched his new business venture, Lingrove, in 2014 specifically to manufacture Ekoa-based products.
After “stumbling across a hippy-dippy outfit in Australia that was making didgeridoos out of hemp and sugar” in 2008, Luttwak was inspired to work with natural materials, but wanted to the process to be more exacting and scalable. So when he returned to the Bay Area he reached out to a California-based company that manufactures natural, plant-based resins, and consulted with them as to how they could integrate their resin into a natural wood substitute. Wood from trees is essentially a combination of plant fibers and resin, and Luttwak wanted to create something even stronger than wood. His research led him to flax–an incredibly strong, carbon-neutral fiber that can be grown with relatively little resources. Mixed with the resin, the flax fibers form a kind of paste that the Lingrove team can then mold into whatever shape they are aiming for.
A small ukulele was the first Ekoa-based product that Luttwak brought to market. Now, Lingrove is expanding into a variety of markets. Luttwak’s team recently debuted an Ekoa-based replica of the designer Eero Saarinen’s iconic 1955 tulip-arm chair that was, not unlike the fiberglass original, also set in a mold and cured. There are also Ekoa fishing rods and canoe paddles, and Luttwak sees potential for skateboards. Eventually, he imagines Ekoa could replace wood elements in cars, and also be molded into bicycles (carbon fiber bikes are among the highest performing on the market, so the Ekoa alternative might be even better).
Lingrove is not a manufacturing company per se. Rather, Luttwak and his team will be partnering with companies that want to integrate the material into their products. “It seems like an opportunity worth pursuing,” Luttwak says. “We’re pursuing big customers and large material flows to really make an impact.”