Report examines benefits, feasibility of basalt facility

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Examples of basalt products are on display in the Hilo office of the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems.

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Rodrigo Romo, Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems program director, holds paddles made with basalt mesh (left) and traditional fiber glass mesh (right) Friday in PISCES’ Hilo office.

Hawaii Island has plenty of basalt rock.

After all, it’s what the island is made of.

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But could it support a basalt fiber manufacturing facility?

A new study commissioned by the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems suggests the island could make a name for itself in this small but growing industry.

“If the basalt here is such that it leads to the production of high-quality basalt fiber, then you can make a viable operation,” said Rodrigo Romo, PISCES program director, while discussing the report completed last October.

The study, paid for with a $180,000 allocation from the state Legislature, was conducted by SMA. It says the fiber, akin to glass or carbon fibers, is made by crushing and melting basalt, then drawing it out into long, continuous strands that are cooled and twisted.

“Basalt fiber can be used to produce finished and semi-finished products such as roving, geogrids, yarns, chopped roving and rebar,” it says.

In terms of strength, basalt fiber falls somewhere between low-cost glass fiber and high-performance carbon fiber, the report states.

Romo demonstrates some of its uses in his office.

His two canoe paddles are made with a basalt fiber backing. He also said he has made a surfboard out of the fiber, which is similar to fiberglass. (Both were paid with his own funds).

“My next big ambitious project is to make a one-man canoe,” Romo said.

PISCES is a small Hilo-based aerospace agency attached to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Its focus is on applied research, mostly related to helping humans establish a foothold on Mars or the moon, as well as economic development for the state.

PISCES’ research mostly addresses use of basalt, also easily found on those planetary bodies, as a construction material.

While encouraging, the report isn’t a slam dunk.

It notes the high energy and labor costs of the island, in addition to logistical challenges, as being drawbacks. Most basalt fiber production is done in Russia or China, which have lower operational costs.

The only facility in the United States opened this year in North Carolina.

Still, if a business focused on high-quality fiber, then it could find itself a profitable niche here, the report concludes.

The benefit for the local economy would be 81 jobs paying on average $75,000, it estimates.

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Romo said he doesn’t expect the state to invest in such a facility, so it would be up to the private sector to determine if it’s worthwhile.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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