Byssal threads are the filaments that allow bivalve mollusks such as mussels to attach themselves to a surface (i.g. rock, boat hull, etc.). These filaments look like flax (the Latin name for byssus means ‘fine flax’) but are usually discarded by mussel producers. A French start-up has found a way to recycle these filaments into technical textiles. We talked to Robin Maquet, the founder of Bysco.
Bysco is a French company located in the Western part of France, near the Atlantic Ocean. It was founded in August 2021 by Robin Maquet, an engineer, and Florence Baron, a former teacher.
An Ecological Alternative to Fiberglass
Robin is a young engineer. He worked for two years as an apprentice at Beneteau. As part of his studies, he joined a sailing team as a co-skipper. This was when he became aware of the polluting nature of the materials used in his racing boat.
“I realized that the boat’s CO2 emissions were at their highest regarding the materials it was made of. 70% of the boat is made of synthetic fibers, whether it is fiberglass or polyester. There are some in the hulls, in the ropes, everywhere. So I wanted to find a natural fiber to replace these polluting ones.”
For some time now, people have been trying to replace the very polluting material of fiberglass with others that are more environmentally friendly. This is the case for French engineer Corentin de Chatelperron who discovered jute fiber. He built a small sailboat from Bangladesh jute fiber and tested it successfully in 2010 during a cruise from the Ganges Delta to La Ciotat in France.
Fuelled by the same ambition, Robin Maquet chose to exploit another lesser-known fiber with equally promising potential: mussel byssus. Byssus is a fiber similar to flax fiber that allows bivalve mollusks such as mussels to attach themselves to rocks or boat hulls. It is a fiber made from mussels. 1 kg of these mollusks produces 3 g of byssus.
While Corentin de Chatelperron developed a jute fiber industry in Bangladesh, the mussel byssus used by Robin Maquet is produced in France And it could be used to produce very resistant textile materials.
“I looked in nature and locally, and I discovered mussel byssus. I produced my first prototypes and created my company. Today, our fiber is not being used to make boats. Instead, it is being used in the equipment and interior fittings of boats, camper vans and converted vans, particularly for thermal insulation. Our next target is interior fittings for mobility: naval, aeronautical, railway…”
An Unused Ressource With Many Benefits
Byssus has many advantages. The fiber is light and solid.
“The advantages of byssus are thermal and acoustic insulation. It is also a light fiber that can resist fire”.
Another advantage is that the fiber is currently unused as mussel producers get rid of it without transforming or recycling it. Byssus was so far just waste. Estimates report that 5,000 tonnes of byssus are available per year in France, and at least as much in neighboring European countries (The Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and Italy).
Bysco’s mussel farming partners provide the company with the byssus. It is a win-win collaboration as it removes the need for the producers to treat and get rid of the byssus which has a cost. The fiber is then washed at a production plant in Cancale, at the western end of the Mont-Saint-Michel bay.
“We remove the organic matter and the shells. Then we transform the mussel byssus into textiles for industry. And depending on the customer, in this second step, we can add other materials.”
The company produces thin rolls of flexible textile and thicker, 1.20 m high panels such as insulation panels.
Robin tells us that their products are 70-95% bio-based.
“For a fireproof panel, we have 95% bio-based fiber with a maximum of byssus. For panels with rigidity constraints, we can add other plant fibers. Sometimes we have to add polymer fibers to meet the customer’s technical requirements. Our manta is the environmental transition. In my opinion, there are three major issues: agriculture, energy, and materials. We are positioning ourselves on materials by developing the byssus sector. We obviously want to make 100% bio-sourced materials but considering our current R&D stage, we don’t know how to do it without petroleum-based fiber yet. But we are working on it.”
The objective for the moment, he stresses, is to offer the market a cleaner material than the competing materials.
Recycling 80% of the French Byssus Production
The company is just starting to sell its product to industrialists. The Rapido group, for example, has equipped itself with several rolls and panels of byssus for its motor homes.
In terms of price, byssus fiber is more expensive than fiberglass but on par with the most expensive flax fibers. Flax fibers generally cost around 20€ / m².
Bysco is currently building a production line that is expected to be operational later this year. It should enable the company to produce 50 tonnes of material this year, then rapidly reach 200 tonnes per year and gradually continue to increase.
“There are 5,000 tonnes of byssus available in France, so our objective is to produce 5,000 tonnes of fiber! In any case, I hope that within 10 years we will be able to recycle 80% of the French byssus production.”
Robin is also open to other applications for his textile. The company is currently discussing the possibility of integrating its byssus fiber into personal protective equipment for example.