Specific project objectives are to:
characterise coconut ‘wood’ resource properties relevant to the design and manufacture of high quality flooring;
develop processing systems and profiles for high quality flooring;
define appropriate grading standards, product specifications and quality control systems;
develop options to utilise the low-quality portion of the stem.
In the Pacific region, large areas of coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) have grown senile, and copra yields are greatly reduced as a consequence. The cost and phytosanitary implications of clearing senile palms are real impediments to replanting.
Production of flooring material from senile stems has been proposed as means of clearing the old plantations while generating some income. There is very high demand for flooring products in Asia, America and Europe - the US market alone is forecast to grow by 40% in the four years to 2008. Generally however, while market demand is increasing, the supply of suitable resources is decreasing, particularly for hard, dark timbers from sustainable resources.
Market appraisals by two Australian companies have indicated that the unique attractive appearance of cocowood, combined with its hardwearing properties and sustainable plantation origins, will ensure high levels of consumer demand. Limited volumes of coconut wood flooring have been produced in Indonesia and exported to Europe; however, there are at present no known industry-scale coconut wood flooring manufacturers.
The project arose from a coconut workshop held at Nadi, Fiji in November 2004. It aims to develop appropriate processes and provide the technical information that will underpin the manufacture and broad acceptance of coconut wood in the international high value flooring market.
The coconut palm, regarded as ‘the tree of life’, is a significant source of food (the nut) and saleable product (traditionally copra) that provides essential income for villages. Palm senility and associated loss of productivity is incompatible with a perception of sustainable use, and villagers have already demonstrated their willingness to harvest senile stems for a cash return.
The project addresses key issues relating to the acceptance of coconut wood into the high value flooring market. The project is focusing on developing processing systems and profiles for high quality flooring, and defining appropriate grading standards, product specifications and quality control systems. Examining the variation in resource quality will help to define grading rules that will optimise the utilisation potential of cocowood produced from different parts of the palm stem.
Communication and networks
Several initiation meetings and visits to facilities and palm plantation were conducted in Fiji and Samoa by project leaders and technical staff in July, August and September, 2007, continuing to build a network of interested parties and conduct trials with in-country participants. Further meetings with partners and collaborators took place in Fiji and Samoa in May 2008. These generated constructive discussions about progress and future directions.
A network of industry contacts in Australia, Fiji and Samoa has been established, including flooring market and production specialists, potential resource suppliers and processors. In February 2008, the project team briefed representatives from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australian High Commission Samoa, Samoan Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment and Meteorology and Samoan Ministry of Agriculture on the project, which resulted in television coverage in Samoa.
A training workshop for cocowood primary processing (supported by The Crawford Fund) was delivered by project staff in Fiji, September 2007. The 20 participants represented project partners and interested parties from the Pacific region.
A project website ‘cocowood’ www.cocowood.net was launched in February 2008. It delivers information and news about the project and encourages communication between industry, research and other stakeholders. Website inquiries have been received from North America, Papua New Guinea, Australia and the Philippines.
Characterisation of cocowood resource properties
Cocowood was sampled from the resource in Fiji and Samoa and wood properties are being tested in Fiji and Australia to evaluate moisture content, density, shrinkage, grain deviation. Interestingly, preliminary growth strain measurements indicate tension in lower stem and compression at upper stem, beneath the frond break. These characteristics are different from the growth strain typical of hardwood and softwood woody stems and these data will be the first reported for the trait.
After a delay in shipping the samples to Brisbane, we have begun preliminary tests on mechanical properties and samples have been prepared for workability studies.
Microorganisms that colonise cocowood as it dries cause aesthetic degrade, reducing its value for appearance-grade products such as flooring. Our research underway to identify key microbes responsible for staining will help develop suitable treatments to protect cocowood. Several species of fungi have been isolated from stained cocowood and we are testing which ones leave a permanent, visible stain. We have also begun to address the problem of heavy colonisation by non-staining moulds which could be a risk to cocowood processing workers who have prolonged exposure to mould spores. Preliminary trials have begun in Fiji and Samoa to evaluate potential treatments for preventing the prolific growth of fungi on cocowood as it dries.
Processing systems and profiles for high quality flooring
Boral Timber (Murwillumbah Engineered Flooring Plant), Australia’s major engineered flooring manufacturer, is collaborating with DPI&F to develop appropriate processing systems and product designs for cocowood.
Future work will address grading standards, product specifications, quality control systems as well as options for using the low-quality portion (core segment) of the stem.
The ACIAR project Improving value and marketability of coconut wood has provided a prolific output of results during the past year, in addition to expanding the network of parties interested in the development of a Pacific cocowood industry.
Characterisation of cocowood resource properties
Resource characterisation assessments on material sampled from a range of Fijian and Samoan sites were completed. Recovery data and drying information were retained during the sampling process to add to the existing information on cocowood sawn recovery. In addition to sawn boards, full cross-sectional discs were harvested from sampled logs to provide test specimens for grain deviation and grain angle measurements. Previous studies by others revealed that cocowood is formed in a vertical helical course within the stem. It was discovered that in fact there are three helices, offset to each other, forming a strong interlocked structural cylinder.
Cocowood has a reputation for high silica content, often given as the reason for rapid blunting of tool edges during processing. Studies found that the abrasiveness is more likely attributed to the combination of high levels of a range of mineral compounds (total mineral content between 2-3%) rather than specifically due to silica.
Data for hardness, stiffness, strength and density were collected and analysed using statistical methods to ascertain important correlations and to compare values with traditional wood. Further, some data were used to produce coloured density maps to show the location of material potentially suitable for flooring.
Representative samples covering the range of density found in cocowood were tested for resistance to termites at a north Queensland site. It was found that resistance increases with increasing density, however all densities were susceptible and therefore cocowood cannot be classified as termite resistant.
Processing systems and profiles for high quality flooring
A peeling feasibility study was undertaken in Brisbane. Quarantine restrictions limit the options for further work of this nature to be conducted in Australia however discussions are underway with partner countries to develop a plan for further investigations in this domain due to the improved recovery potential offered by peeling technologies compared to traditional sawmilling.
Important cocowood properties were measured to assist researchers to provide technical solutions to the unique behavioural traits of cocowood products and to ascertain the thresholds for utilisation options. Workability trials were conducted, assessing different tooling systems used in secondary machining processes such as planing and profiling of high value cocowood. Additionally, flooring designs were developed and tested through cyclic environmental conditions to assess performance.
Distortion of boards has been shown to be the major performance issue with cocowood flooring. Solutions designed to minimise or eliminate twist in service will form an important area of continued investigation.
BORAL Timber (Murwillumbah) provided in-kind support through production of engineered flooring products using thin-sawn cocowood lamellae in the surface layer. Additional cocowood material was sourced from Fiji for a larger production run to provide enough prototype material for a test and display floor to be installed in the Salisbury Research Centre.
Technical visits were undertaken by three Australian scientific staff to conduct anti-sapstain trials, and to visit partner organisations and associated facilities. The visit also provided the opportunity to meet with energy authorities to discuss various power options for kiln drying technologies applicable in Fiji and Samoa.
The Crawford Fund contributed to a drying workshop and seminar, held at the Salisbury Research Centre in Brisbane during November 2008. The Workshop brought together stakeholders from Fiji and Samoa and the participants graduated with a Certificate in Drying Operations. A project seminar was held to coincide with the workshop and researchers presented results to workshop participants and invited delegates from the emerging Australian cocowood industry and the Crawford Fund Queensland Committee members.
Grading standards and product specifications
Basic board grading was undertaken during the processing of cocowood for properties tests and workability trials. More detailed grading information for feedstock and manufacturing requirements is being gathered through consultation with the Palmwood Fiji - Sustainable Forest Industries Limited joint venture in Fiji and with BORAL Timber in Australia.
Product specifications for the Australian high value flooring market are being developed through consultation with BORAL Timber and a range of flooring wholesaler and installation companies in Queensland.
European market specifications are being developed through a process of negotiation with Planet Coconut (France) and the Palmwood Fiji - Sustainable Forest Industries Limited joint venture in Fiji. These parties have allowed QPIF to observe their discussions, providing a real world scenario to be reported as a case study in the final report.