«We develop a solution that helps reduce harmful formaldehyde emissions»

Agrona is an innovating company working on green based composites to manufacture chipboards, which account for 60% of the global wood-based panel products. After 6 years of R&D in the field of engineering woods, Agrona’s new solution and technology reduce not only manufacturing costs but also solve most of the problems that face local manufacturers, such as seasonality, high energy consumption and low quality. This interview has been published in the JEC Composites Magazine N°153.

«We develop a solution that helps reduce harmful formaldehyde emissions»

4 minutes, 20 secondes

JEC Composites Magazine: Could you introduce Agrona to us in a few words?
Mohamad El-Kafafy: Agrona is a technological startup in the field of sustainable composites founded in 2018. Agrona raised a pre-seed round from Flat6labs and Innoventures in March 2019. The company has a pilot facility in Cairo for wood based-panels production with a capacity of 12k panels/year. The total staff is 12.

JEC Composites Magazine: What constraints/needs does your solution meet?
Mohamad El-Kafafy: Two billion trees are cut down every year just for supplying the construction and furniture industries. This is accelerating climate change. The global wood based panels (WBP) market reached €154.8 billion ($165.2 billion) in 2022 and is expected to reach €221.85 billion ($236.8 billion) by 2028, exhibiting a 6% growth rate (CAGR) from 2023 to 2028. Wood-based panels are made from wood chips, strips, veneers, strands or fibres.
Urea-formaldehyde (UF) resins are the main type of adhesive used for the preparation of wood-based panels, due to their good performance and low price. However, formaldehyde emissions are the cause of serious health problems such as lung cancer. Modifying UF resins is essential to reduce these drawbacks.
The commonly used method is to decrease the amount of free formaldehyde present in the adhesive formulation. To this end, either additives acting as formaldehyde scavengers, such as urea and ammonia, are incorporated, or certain natural compounds, such as tannins, are added. Agrona provides several solutions to protect trees and eliminate these lethal emissions.

JEC Composites Magazine: You claim that you can manufacture wood without cutting trees, could you explain? What technology/process is at the heart of your strategy?
Mohamad El-Kafafy: Agrona’s R&D team invented a new thermoset biobased resin compatible with various lignocellulosic materials, in particular many types of agri-residues that are abundant in the Middle East and Africa and form very good alternatives to wood materials. Hence, this technology completely avoids the use of formaldehyde without compromising the panel’s mechanical properties. This will help us get in tune with global endeavours toward sustainability goals. For every ton of wood panels produced out of agri-residues and bio-based resins, Agrona can save three trees from being cut down to manufacture the same product. This also helps end harmful practices in rural societies to burn agricultural waste, which can generate 500 m3 of CO2 emissions per ton of agri-residues.

JEC Composites Magazine: How are your supply chain and production line organised to transform natural fibres into sustainable and upcycling materials?
Mohamad El-Kafafy: Agrona’s supply chain team relies on non- seasonal and high-fibre-content crop residues such as tomato and eggplant stalks, which are abundant in huge volumes all year round. The agri-residues are sourced from point of supplies of specialised companies and local farmers, who work in the fields to collect, air dry, size, package/bale and transport them to the pilot facility in Cairo. Agrona’s facility turns these agri-residues into wood panels (Figure 1).

Fig. 1: Agrona’s sustainable wood-based panel processing steps

JEC Composites Magazine: What are your target markets?
Mohamad El-Kafafy: Being based in Egypt, we are currently targeting the African market, with sales channels in Egypt, Libya and Sudan. We have €562 k ($600 k) sales orders in the pipeline. We also have a strong plan to expand our business into European and North American markets by 2024 through licensing agreements.

JEC Composites Magazine: What has changed for your company since you won the Sustainability Prize at the last Startup Booster Challenge?

Mohamad El-Kafafy: Winning JEC World 2023’s Startup Booster was a significant achievement in Agrona’s business life since our launch in 2018. This enabled us to partner with many European companies for research and development, and to realise a number of business opportunities in Europe and North America. We also had the chance to join a plug-and-play accelerator programme for new material technologies in Silicon Valley.

JEC Composites Magazine: What are your next development steps and projects?
Mohamad El-Kafafy: Agrona being a technological startup in the field of sustainable composites, our R&D team has been working on a new technology that will revolutionise thermal insulation in various fields. Traditional insulating materials often lack eco-friendliness and demand substantial energy during production.

Fig. 2: Composite material made from ceramics and lignocellulosic materials

Under my leadership, the company developed an eco-friendly insulation material (Figure 2) that include 50% agri-residues. This material also has outstanding thermal insulation, radiation insulation, and anti-bacterial growth properties. Last but not least, it is very inexpensive compared to the other materials in the market.

With an R-value between 2 and 3, Agrona’s insulating material can be used to insulate ovens at temperatures under 300°C. If thermally treated, this material can insulate up to 1,000°C, which could be useful in different industrial applications. Moreover, it shows a high anti-bacterial resistance, a very important parameter in housing projects and healthcare facilities such as hospitals and clinics. Agrona’s insulation also offers radiation shielding properties, which are indispensable in nuclear applications (24.5 mm thickness of Agrona’s insulation is equivalent to 1 mm lead thickness).

It was a dream to have a material combining all these properties in only one product, which will become a target for many industries in the near future.

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