26 February 1999

WOOL HOPES

REST WITH

INSULATION

A Welsh project looking at the feasibility of using wool as

an insulating material for houses might eventually lead to

a substantial market for a product currently suffering

from surpluses and low prices

WITH wool prices in the doldrums, theres not much money to be made from the average sheep clip. But a project in Wales could open up a new outlet for low-grade fleeces – as house insulation.

Using wool as an environmentally-friendly alternative to current mineral-based products isnt a new idea. Some material of this sort already comes in from Austria and New Zealand. But a project at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) at Machynlleth, Powys, looking at the feasibility of producing wool-based insulation from Welsh sheep could give housebuilders and DIY experts a home-grown product.

CAT specialises in practical research into areas like solar, water and wind power, energy efficiency and organic production. It wanted to use this type of eco-friendly insulation in its new information centre, due to be built this year, and has set up a feasibility study.

Wool-based insulation could bring benefits to both housebuilders and sheep producers. For housebuilders, it provides a thermally-efficient, reusable product that is much more pleasant to handle than most current mineral-based products. Suitable for standard 300mm wall cavities, as loft insulation or anywhere else heat or noise insulation is required, it is naturally fire-resistant and very little energy is used in its manufacture. It is also resistant to fungi and insects.

For sheep producers, it could provide a potentially large new outlet for low-grade wool at a time when UK producers are suffering from oversupply, the strong pound and longstanding low prices. With current prices for low-grade wool standing at 36p/kg and the average Welsh hill breed producing a 2kg clip, the revenue to the producer barely covers the cost of clipping it. The UK produces 50m kg of wool a year and is the fifth largest producer in the world.

Upland

Upland producers are particularly badly hit because animals on hills tend to put on more kemps (the hollow fibres that keep the sheep warm) than lowland sheep. These kemps are difficult to dye and so the wool is less suited to textile or carpet manufacturing.

Dafydd Jones from the British Wool Marketing Board said he welcomed the news that the CAT was having a look at an alternative use for wool. "Any new outlet for British wool must be good news," he said.

Robert Borruso from London-based Construction Resources, which imports NZ wool insulation, said he would be pleased to stock a UK-sourced product. NZ wool insulation currently costs four times as much as mineral insulation but the lower transport costs mean the UK product could be much cheaper. However, it would have to match the NZ materials guarantee to be free from OP dip traces.