16 March 2022

Student’s seaweed wallboard reduces carbon footprint


International student Andy (Minhong) Park, from South Korea, is developing a wallboard which has the potential to become a key component in New Zealand’s drive to create more sustainable and affordable housing.

The biocomposite wall panel uses seaweed as a bio-filler and was designed as part of Andy’s Bachelor of Product Design final year project in Industrial Design at the University of Canterbury (UC). 

“We have 12 weeks to complete our final project,” he says. “My lecturer was telling me about his interest in using seaweed as a construction material. I liked the idea of exploring something so new, so I decided to take on the challenge.”

Andy says research showed that seaweed was used as a roofing insulation material in Denmark back in the 16th century, so he figured it could have properties which could be useful in construction. 

“We wondered if we could use this natural material in plasterboard to reduce the carbon footprint of existing plaster-based board. We also suspected that seaweed could have some fire-resistant properties, so we set about trying to prove that.” 

Seaweed wallboard safe and sustainable 

After much trial and error trying to figure out how to successfully mix seaweed with plaster, the prototype seaweed board produced outstanding results in furnace testing.  

“I thought the plasterboard could be gone in five minutes in the furnace, but it was still intact when it came out after about an hour. It was an amazing sight.” 

Initial research also shows the seaweed board can absorb more moisture than the average plasterboard so could improve the warmth and dryness of New Zealand’s famously cold and damp homes. 

Andy is excited by the prospects for his biocomposite board. “Seaweed is fast-growing and capable of sequestering around 173 million metric tons of carbon annually. It’s easy to cultivate and can be farmed offshore, making it an attractive, low-cost farming commodity,” he says.  

“As the construction sector faces the challenge of reducing carbon emissions but building more houses, and with plasterboard used in almost every home, seaweed plasterboard offers a viable green alternative.” 

Future lies in New Zealand 

Andy is now planning his future in New Zealand, but that wasn’t always the case. He left Busan, South Korea, to come to New Zealand with his mother and older brother, who wanted to train as vet. He says leaving all his friends behind was tough and arriving in Christchurch as a 14-year-old with only limited English was “an eye-opening experience”.  

He now understands what a huge decision it was for his parents, that his mother would come to New Zealand alone to support the boys while his father stayed behind to work. And he appreciates what he gained from an education experience in New Zealand. 

“If I had never come, I think my educational journey would have been much more difficult because in Korea you spend long hours at school and at after-school tutoring, and there is so much pressure to succeed.  

“It’s a very different approach here. In New Zealand you can choose your courses based on your interests and you are encouraged to learn independently. What I remember from school is not what I learned in Korea, but what I learned in New Zealand,” he says. 

“And finishing school at 3pm was a whole new experience for me. It meant I could play sport, hang out with my friends, do other things I enjoy doing.” 

Andy says he always wanted to be a product designer and was incredibly lucky that UC opened its new School of Product Design when he was in Year 13. “It was perfect timing for me. I love this place and my whole life is here in Christchurch, so I didn’t want to leave.”  

International education decision “wise choice” 

There is no doubt that what Andy’s parents described as “the wise choice” to be educated in New Zealand has worked out well for both boys. His older brother Justin (Hyeonggeon) Park completed training as a vet technician and now works at Massey University’s animal hospital in Palmerston North, and Andy’s seaweed wallboard project recently won the UC Innovation Jumpstart Greatest Commercial Potential Award with $20,000 in prize money. 

The research team, which includes UC Fire Engineering Lecturer Dr Dennis Pau, Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) Senior Associate Dr Tim Huber and UC Product Design Senior Lecturer Dr Nick Emerson, is working with the university’s Research and Innovation team to develop a commercialisation plan, and Kaiārahi Rangahau Māori to identify suitable species of seaweed for product development and marine agriculture. 

Andy is convinced of the star potential of his biocomposite wallboard and would like to see the project through, but needs a new scholarship to allow him to undertake a Master’s programme. If that’s not an option, he is determined to try and secure a role working in New Zealand as an industrial product designer.  

“Coming here has been incredibly rewarding,” he says. “The person I am now is based on my experience in New Zealand.” 

“I would love to be a citizen here because I love this country so much.”

*Photos of Andy Park are courtesy of the University of Canterbury

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