An Italian superyacht builder looks to replace traditional fiberglass with materials derived from lava flows.

Pompeii. Krakatoa. Mount St. Helens. Volcanoes are generally associated with the death and destruction that follows when they blow their tops. Or inconvenience, as when the ash plume from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull led to a weeks-long, worldwide air traffic nightmare.

But volcanoes have also gifted us the Hawaiian Islands, geothermal energy and as any sommelier worth their Sangiovese knows, world-renowned wines from the super-rich soil in the shadows of Mount Etna and Vesuvius. Could the mineral-rich volcanic rock filaments produce a superior, green replacement for fiberglass in boatbuilding? A recent collaboration between an Italian superyacht yard and an eco-conscious manufacturer is betting on it.

The Belgian company Isomatex has developed a durable fiber from the basalt rock of lava flows. Dubbed Filava, the material got the attention of Amer Yachts as a cleaner, greener solution to a traditional fiberglass lay-up. “The basalt fiber could grant a cradle-to-cradle process instead of the traditional fiberglass,” Amer Yachts President Barbara Amerio told Power & Motoryacht.

The properties of Filava—manufactured in a melt-spinning process in which the basalt is batch-aggregated with other organic materials—are intriguing. It shows excellent elasticity and resistance to massive fluctuations in temperature. As it comes in the same standard format as fiberglass, it also does not require infrastructure updates to a yacht-manufacturing facility. According to Amerio, the long, soft fibers are easier for the workers to handle as well. “[It’s] fire-resistant, lighter and easy to use.”

Testing the material for structural components has begun, with Amer partnering with RINA, the country’s marine trade association and ENEA, the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development. As the process moves along, Amerio mentioned the builder is also experimenting with Filava for other, non-structural parts of the vessel.

As far as cost, Amerio said it’s pricier but in line with any eco-conscious build. What’s more attractive to the builder is the longevity of the material, as molds made from Filava can become raw materials to be used over and over again with no loss in its properties, and can even be used in new builds. Most of all, it provides a green alternative to fiberglass vessels retired to the scrapyard. “We are investing in the future, thinking about the end of life for [our] boats,” she said.

Once approved by RINA and after builders are instructed how best to utilize the new material (“Just a simple training at the beginning,” Amerio said) the build time will follow that of a traditional fiberglass vessel. If all goes as planned, we can see a new launch made from Filava in 2022. In the meantime, Amer Yachts will continue to experiment and embrace sustainable solutions to the yachtbuilding process, including utilizing bio-resins during resin infusion.

Builders are starting to recognize that their products could be designed better—to either last much longer or have a plan to reuse or recycle once it reaches its end of life. With Amerio at the helm of her family’s San Remo yard, an ambassador of Italian high design is ensuring a green lineage for the next generations of shipbuilders to erupt, albeit in a good way. 

This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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