Suburban Utopia

ECO Coin Award Interviews: Ritsert Mans

The world is changing and it’s important that we evolve with it. The ECO Coin Award is our way of recognizing innovations and initiatives which help us adapt to our next nature. The nominees are all aiming to create a more humane and sustainable future for us all. Now, in the lead-up to the announcement of this year’s winner, we’re interviewing each of the three finalists to learn about their values, insights and visions for the future. This week, we spoke to Ritsert Mans, Dutch designer nominated in recognition of his unique creation: a wooden motorcycle running on algae oil.

Mans’ bike was designed as a way of showing off the innovative work of his associate, Peter Mooij, who is also nominated for the prize. Mooij created a new fuel out of a particularly durable species of algae, which he and Mans believe to be a sustainable energy source for the future. But to show off the oil, Mans was not content with using a conventional vehicle. Returning to traditional materials like wood, cork and hemp, he wanted to show that the future can look organic too.

In the Q&A below, we asked Mans about his unique design and the algae oil it is meant to promote. Read on and see!

How does the motorcycle work? Are there elements of the design that you have to be careful about when working with wood rather than plastic or metal?

The choice of a motorbike was easy; it is the most pure and simple form to go from an engine to a source of transport – just add a frame and two wheels. The main design challenge I set myself was to make a bike with a high-tech layout (single sided swing arms) and an all-natural frame. For every part of the bike I searched for solutions and materials provided by nature.

For every part of the bike I searched for solutions provided by nature

Nearly every modern high-tech product uses composite materials. Nature has its own natural composite: wood. Wood has fibers pointing in one direction, and with that direction you can steer the flexibility and stiffness. With that ability and the use of cork and hemp, I built a suspended frame. Wood is actually a really strong material; the connections are the crucial points. Luckily wood can be steam-bent so you need fewer connections.

Besides the materials, the design was very important for me. The overall goal was to let the power of nature and the algae speak, so that the bike should look dynamic. Besides dynamics, it is also built with the ambiance of the early 20th century in mind – back when they also tested all fast machines on the beach. The engine is dead simple and not very different from 100 years ago. Cool to know that the first diesel engine Rudolf Diesel designed in 1892 ran on peanut oil.

You claim to approach design from an intuitive perspective. How does this organic approach impact your work and creations?

Although I studied industrial design engineering, I found out that for me the only way to create is to follow my intuition. I go straight from an idea to the workshop and start building. Of course, this way you are a little unsure of the result, and you will definitely come across some problems. But for me the power of this process is the unknown result. That unknown keeps me motivated and focused.

We will need some kind of oil source for the coming 100 years

Of course, simulation software, modeling and rating lists help designers a lot, but for innovation’s sake I think it is sometimes also good to pick the difficult or unpractical solution. It is not such a bad thing to fail from time to time.

The motorcycle runs on, and is designed to show off, Peter Mooij’s algae oil. Can you tell us more about this fuel? How do you see its potential future applications?

Peter used natural evolution (the survival of the fittest) to let the algae design themselves. The result is strong algae that makes it more workable to go large scale and grow algae in the sea. Just like any other vegetable oil the algae use CO2 and convert it into O2. The big advantage of algae is their ability to grow in salt water. That ability allows algae to avoid competing for food sources as much as other vegetable oils that use sweet water and land.

I think for transport, electricity will cover a considerable part, but I’m also pretty sure we will need some kind of oil source for the coming 100 years and I would love to stop pumping it out of the earth. Besides that, I think we shouldn’t focus on only one new source of energy, but innovate in all directions.

Mans and Mooij testing the algae powered wooden bike

Your motorcycle is a fascinating object, combining traditional materials like wood and hemp with modern design. Do you consider it more an experiment or a technology that can potentially be applied widely?

For me it was a challenge and a fascinating adventure. I really would love to create more with the experience and materials of this project – perhaps another bike – but that was not the goal. The most important message is perhaps the way we see the future. For me a sustainable future should not be about following new rules. We really don’t know how our world will look in 30 years, but if we see it as an adventure it can be really interesting and exciting!

Besides that, it’s clear that the bike isn’t a practical concept for future commuting transport: you get, dirty, wet, and might get killed if you crash. But it does appeal to me and I hope also to a big crowd.

For me a sustainable future should not be about following new rules

Do you have any other projects planned? Are you continuing to work with Peter Mooij on showcasing the algae oil?

I’m always working on projects, and once in a while Peter and I find a project on which we can collaborate. We are not focused exclusively on algae oil, but we are working and searching for new challenges in sustainable development.

You’re nominated for the ECO Coin award, which celebrates innovations in sustainability. How do you feel your work fits in with broader sustainability efforts?

I’m really excited about all the innovations at the moment. I feel that a lot of people are willing to contribute and work towards change. At the same time, I think that we should not forget to look at what makes people smile and I really hope this project contributed towards that.

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