Cork has been used for many years in the energy market, but its full potential is still far from being attained. From solar energy to electric mobility, the goal is to make this sector one of Amorim's principal growth pillars over the medium term. In the week that marks another National Energy Day, we interviewed Carlos Duarte, Executive Director of Amorim Cork Composites (ACC) and head of the Strategic Partnerships & Alliances unit. Passionate about cork and keen to embrace new challenges, he is a member of the Business Development team, which is leading the Amorim Cork Composites project to conquer the energy sector.
Why does cork have great potential in the energy sector?
The main characteristics of cork that we can highlight for application in the energy sector, include its negative contribution in terms of CO2, its resistance to extreme temperatures, chemical compatibility and low thermal conductivity, its resilience, and damping properties.
Cork has been used in the industry for many years, correct? Can you give some examples of the type of applications?
Exactly. Cork has been used in the Energy sector for a long time, in particular in the T&D Transmission and Distribution area (Power or Distribution Transformers). Cork is used as a sealing element, where unique combinations of cork and selected rubber create materials suitable for flat sealing applications which, due to reduced lateral expansion, permit larger contact areas and higher compression coefficients, thereby ensuring an effective sealing barrier against any potential flange surface imperfections, distortions and leaks. Cork is also used as a vibration damping element, based on rubber-based cork-based elastomeric materials, that are specially developed to improve energy dissipation and insulation, thus reducing airborne structural noise from electrical equipment. These solutions can be used outside the transformer and exposed to bad weather, without changing their properties, and also inside the transformers, in contact with the different oils used in this industry.
Cork has been used as a core element in residential and commercial applications of wind turbine blades, due to its thermal and mechanical characteristics, which allow better performance in terms of structural vibration damping. It has also been applied in protection systems against the accumulation of ice on turbine blades, due to its thermal characteristics, which permits less heat loss.
In the latest developments, we see the possibility of using cork in electric mobility solutions, in particular as a sealing element or thermal protection for electric batteries. This thermal protection is extremely important for equipment safety in case of damage to the cells inside the battery, because it minimises the effects of any possible explosion. In this case, it is important to highlight cork’s excellent properties in terms of thermal protection and fire resistance, with some of the materials approved by UL 94.
What materials currently compete with cork?
Depending on the field of application, we find different materials that can compete with cork. For example, in the case of electric mobility, the most commonly-used materials for thermal management and sealing are silicone sponges, polyurethane foams and ceramic materials (micas). In the T&D Transmission and Distribution area, rubber cork competes directly with other types of rubbers: NBR, SBR, fluorinated, among others. In the area of wind energy the main competing materials are different types of foam (PVC, PET) and balsa.
In a direct comparison, what are the main factors that distinguish cork from these competing materials?
Cork’s negative carbon footprint is clearly one of its key competitive advantages, mainly because in the Energy field we are talking about more environmentally friendly Energies and, therefore, cork, in addition to meeting all the technical requirements of the different applications, contributes to a better carbon balance of the systems in which it is applied.
What are the reasons that justify the fact that cork still has a very limited presence in the energy sector?
If we look at the energy sector over recent decades, it appears that it is characterized by the intensive exploitation of fossil fuels, where, although cork was present, it did not have any factor that would make it a strategic material.
Nowadays, the energy transition and the objective of carbon neutrality have created unique conditions for a product such as cork, which has a negative carbon footprint.
This factor becomes particularly important given that, for example, the adoption of regulatory measures for the control of the carbon footprint of electric batteries in the European Union market is foreseen in 2024. This set of measures immediately creates a new competitive space for cork which, together with the allocation of multidisciplinary resources, makes it possible to foresee significant growth of cork in this sector.
Can we then say that, for Corticeira Amorim, the energy sector will constitute a major commitment over the medium term?
Absolutely. Energy is increasingly present in our lives, and our view of the sector requires an integrated view of the value chain and the need to develop materials that can be integrated into the various stages and different players of the value chain.
Concretely, we can analyze the Energy value chain using a logic of energy generation, whether via Solar or Wind energy or Storage, through the batteries used in solar or wind farms or even in electric vehicles, to Distribution, in the area of Transformers, or, finally, in a Consumption logic, where we have, for example, Residential or Commercial energy chargers.
It is a sector that poses a very strong question about Why Cork? and where we are also trying to build a strong awareness of Why Amorim? Naturally, we hope that over the medium term this sector will become one of Amorim's main growth pillars, and we are developing several projects in progress for this purpose, both in the area of Solar Energy and also Electric Mobility.