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Amorim Cork Research, facing the ongoing challenge to innovate

Cork is a material that is so formidable by nature it may seem to be impossible to improve it. But that’s precisely what Corticeira Amorim has done since it was incorporated as a company. The group has a firm commitment to differentiating its offer in terms of quality and making an unrivalled contribution, beyond any other player in the industry, to reinventing an exceptional natural resource - cork.

Research & Development and Innovation (R & D + I) is a strategic pillar of Corticeira Amorim's leadership in the various segments of its business activity.

The Group’s pioneering investments in the field of innovation have underpinned its leadership of the sector: Corticeira Amorim now provides state-of-the-art solutions for the world’s most demanding industries based on a 100% sustainable raw material.

Based on cork’s natural characteristics and tremendous potential, the company strives to develop new applications that can differentiate its offer and add value. Innovation opens an unlimited range of possibilities for cork, and has resulted in an unparalleled product portfolio in the sector.

Labcork, created in 1983, began life as the first specialist laboratory for the creation of new products and processes. Since then it has grown and its R&D+I currently involve an average annual investment of €8 million, in addition to high investment in autonomous projects using state-of-the-art technology and exclusive production processes.

In this context, Amorim Cork Research is a decisive and autonomous transversal structure, wholly focused on the development of R & D activities. In parallel, all the group’s Business Units have their own R & D & I competences.

It is through Amorim Cork Research that some of the most challenging and unpredictable cork researches are made, being thus responsible for the improvement and enlargement of the cork application field.

The commitment to R&D+I has led to new patents being filed related to processes and products, and Amorim Cork Research is the central structure in which the main guidelines of the research and development activities are defined. Under this business unit, the intellectual property rights of Corticeira Amorim are also protected.


Raw Materials, where it all begins

Although it is not a forest owner, Corticeira Amorim is dedicated to the discovery, assessment and implementation of the best practices related to the cork oak forest.

To improve the vitality of cork oak forests and ensure the quality of their derivative products, the company has implemented an ambitious Forestry Intervention Project (FIP) since 2013. Funded by Corticeira Amorim and developed in partnership with forestry producers, prestigious national and international academic and scientific institutions and local authorities, the FIP’s core goal is to seek responses and solutions to the main challenges facing the cork oak forest.

This initiative encompasses different strategic areas of action, organized into four main action lines: development of improved irrigation systems, cork oak genome sequencing, improvement of cork oak trees, and pest and disease control.

The most recent research projects developed in partnership with the academic and forestry sector in the framework of the FIP include micro-irrigation of cork trees that will ensure higher plantation success rates and accelerate the trees’ initial growth, thereby shortening the time before the first cork extraction.

In 2017, the first structured plantation of 50 hectares of cork oak trees was presented in the context of the Forestry Intervention Project, in an initiative that received scientific support from the University of Évora.

Alongside these collaborative projects, the Raw Materials BU’s internal R&D team continues to focus on the eradication of any sensory defects associated to cork and has delivered positive and promising results that give good indications for the future.

As the world’s largest producer and supplier of cork stoppers, Corticeira Amorim assumes its key role in researching and improving processes that will eradicate any unpleasant flavours associated to cork stoppers.

The company has been dedicated to researching the development of TCA and creating solutions for its elimination for decades. As a result, it was one of the first players in the sector to successfully apply preventive processes against the contamination of cork by this compound - which starts from a better selection and storage of the planks to the investment of millions of Euros in exclusive, completely innovative state-of-the-art technology.

In this context, Corticeira Amorim owns several patents for preventive and curative processes, including the constantly evolving Convex, Rosa and Inos treatment systems, that have revolutionized cork treatment methods.

Cork Stoppers: A passion for wine

Over recent decades, the R&D+I department of the Cork Stoppers BU has focused on the areas of product innovation, improved quality of cork stoppers and increased knowledge of the interaction between cork and wine. Research and development provides a fuller understanding of cork’s properties and its efficiency as a seal for wine. And these findings have generated more innovation.

Projects developed over the last decade include the Helix® system, the first cork stopper to maintaining the cork / glass binomial while dispensing with the need for a corkscrew, and the revolutionary screening technology, NDtech, which makes it possible to detect the TCA levels of each stopper by measuring parts per trillion in just a few seconds.

Alongside the development of new products and the commitment to cutting-edge technologies to guarantee the unsurpassed quality of its cork stoppers, Corticeira Amorim’s is extending knowledge of the interaction between cork and wine through this business unit’s R&D department.

The scientific research conducted by this department, in partnership with renowned academic and technological institutions, has made it possible to unravel some of the most deeply rooted myths about the relationship between cork and wine, in particular the idea that cork is "permeable" and thus enables wine to breathe. This widespread conviction has been completely rebutted through empirical research. After bottling, it is the oxygen impregnated within the cork stopper (and not the "air" on the outside of the bottle) that circulates and interacts with the wine, thus enabling it to mature. In fact, with a cork stopper, only a residual amount of oxygen enters the bottle after two years.

At the Cork Stoppers BU, investment in R&D+I covers all stages of the production process, and generates unique preventive, curative and quality control measures in the industry.

For example, all cork planks used to manufacture wine corks are subjected to the CONVEX advanced washing process, which prevents cross-contamination and produces less humid and cleaner cork, therefore less vulnerable to any sensory contamination. Likewise, ROSA (Rate of Optimal Steam Application) - an exclusive and innovative treatment - is an important step in treatment of granulated cork, eliminating traces of contamination through the use of controlled steam.

In parallel, the Cork Stoppers BU has been a pioneer in the use of gas chromatography (GC-Gas Chromatography), a meticulous quality control system that uses high precision machines to examine stoppers at a molecular level.

Thanks to scientific advances and technological innovation, it has been possible to take this quality control method one step further. Following a 6-year, €12 million R&D investment, Corticeira Amorim has developed NDtech, the industry's most innovative quality control technology, offering the world’s first natural cork with a non-detectable TCA guarantee* . The level of precision needed to meet this standard is impressive, given that 0.5 nanograms / litre is the equivalent of finding one drop of water in 800 Olympic swimming pools.

Developed through a partnership between Amorim and a company based in Cambridge, UK, NDtech individually analyses the presence of TCA in each wine stopper. Each stopper is analysed in a few seconds, thus smashing the previous analysis times of existing chromatography machines, which required up to 14 minutes for each batch of stoppers. High precision analysis technology can detect any stopper containing more than 0.5 nanograms of TCA per litre * (parts per trillion), and automatically removes it from the supply chain. As a result, all stoppers processed using NDtech technology have a non-detectable TCA guarantee*, thereby eliminating the risk that a contaminated natural cork stopper reaches wine producers and consumers.

* releasable TCA content below the 0.5 ng/L quantification limit; analysis performed in accordance to ISO 20752.

Wall and Floor Coverings: leadership through innovation

Amorim Revestimentos’ significant R&D investment has resulted in new technological solutions and a pioneering outlook in terms of the development of renewed visuals and collections.

The launch of the Hydrocork® line - the world’s first waterproof cork flooring solution - marked a turning point in cork flooring. This revolutionary flooring solution is the result of years of R&D+I investment, and offers a differentiated solution with high added value. This solution combines all the benefits associated with cork, coupled with waterproofing. Hydrocork®’s success is also based on its thinness (6mm) and easy installation, thanks to the Pressfit assembly system.

Recently, Amorim Revestimentos presented the innovative Wood Essence line which, due to an investment in state-of-the-art digital printing technology, makes it possible to print any visual on a cork surface, with a resolution of 1000 dpi.

This has made it possible to launch a collection of 14 new wood visuals offering an unprecedented level of realism and colours ranging from natural tones to washed tones. This product line reinforces the sustainable character of these floors, since the visual is printed directly on the cork and does not require the use of PVCs or similar products, thus maintaining resistance and use in commercial spaces with moderate traffic.

Following the market success of Hydrocork, Amorim Revestimentos’ R&D investment now focuses on continuing this commitment, by developing new low thickness, waterproof solutions. To this end, the company has invested in a new line of agglomerated cork flooring, which makes it possible to significantly increase production capacity, and it is also exploring new products and solutions through the incorporation of other materials.

Composite Cork: Reinventing Cork

The success of the Composite Cork Business Unit is based on advanced technological research and a permanent focus on innovation which has made it possible to enhance the potential of cork. This business unit proposes unique, ground-breaking solutions using a 100% reusable material and is an international leader in the research, development and production of new composite cork solutions.

The BU’s passion for innovation is evident in projects that experiment with cork to launch new real world applications.

For example, in the context of the METAMORPHOSIS project, the BU’s research into the properties of cork involving some of the world’s most renowned designers and architects, has spawned solutions that make it possible to implement visionary proposals, and has thereby expanded the limits of this raw material to previously unimaginable levels.

The strategy of combining R&D with highly qualified engineering processes, has generated new products and new applications for cork-based composite materials, many tailor-made, that meet the requirements and exceeding the expectations of some of the world’s most demanding industries and most reputed institutions.

Key projects recently pursued by this business unit's R&D+I department included

  • the development of a new cork composite for the European Space Agency (ESA)’s IXV mission,
  • a new cork-based material for a mega installation at the Tate Modern’s prestigious Turbine Hall Gallery in London, and
  • a revolutionary concrete-and-cork composite used in the Lisbon Cruise Terminal, which is considerably lighter than standard concrete but delivers the thermal and acoustic insulation of cork.

Lightness is also a key dimension of an innovative solution designed by this BU for the maritime industry. By developing a new cork composite for application on the decks of river cruise ships, it has been possible to achieve a significant weight reduction, complemented by excellent thermal insulation and passenger comfort, thereby delivering obvious benefits for safer and more reliable shipping and cleaner oceans.

Part of the R&D effort is dedicated to the challenge of technologically enhancing cork’s natural characteristics through maximisation of the use of natural raw materials and / or biomass derivatives. New ground-breaking resins and manufacturing technologies for these products and solutions are also being developed.

The building industry is one of the principal beneficiaries of this innovative drive to seek alternative solutions to synthetic materials, which guarantee maximum performance. New solutions developed by this BU include:

  • Acousticork - a range of subwoofer and anti-vibration solutions that bring nature to the heart of the city;
  • Corkwall - an ecological wall covering that uses the elasticity of cork to deliver tremendous potential for the rehabilitation of building façades, by combining insulation and final finishing functions in the same product; and
  • Expandacork - a range of expansion joints that uses the properties of cork to absorb the expansions and contractions of concrete buildings.

The challenge of innovation in the Composite Cork Business Unit has led to the development of cooperation programmes with universities, partnerships and consortium projects.

One example is the AEROFAST project, in the framework of which this BU has created a new material for spacecraft thermal shields designed for a future unmanned mission to Mars. The project was led by EADS / Astrium and involved demanding requirements in terms of cork’s thermal protection. The Composite Cork BU was responsible for studying and developing an innovative and resistant cork-based thermal protection formulation. In this context, new resins and additives, in particular fibres, were tested to improve thermal resistance performance.

The success of the project, which was continued in the Ablamod project, is a guarantee of the continued use of cork in space missions during the 21st century, as shown by the recent successes in launching the Delta IV rockets, one of Boeing's most advanced projects, and Vega, the latest rocket from ESA – the European Space Agency, both of which incorporated materials supplied by Corticeira Amorim.

In the field of ground transportation, there has also been major work on important innovation projects, such as Siemens' new Inspiro surface metro system. In terms of future transport systems, it is worth mentioning the concepts of IBUS, ISEAT and Life – the last of which won an international "Crystal Cabine Award".

The BU’s commitment to R&D+I has ensured that cork-based solutions are increasingly comprehensive and surprising.

For example, in the world of sport, new cork granulate infills used in synthetic turf systems have helped make artificial turf more similar to natural turf, and increased its performance.

A similar situation exists for surfboards (such as the MBoard cork board, especially designed for the surfer Garrett McNamara to face the big waves of Nazaré) and equipment for other water sports, where cork’s unique properties have consistently made it possible to overcome the most demanding challenges.

Insulation Cork: innovation on behalf of the environment

The Research & Development of the Insulation BU has led to important advances in the quality plan and new applications for its main product - expanded cork agglomerate which was used in the construction of the Portuguese Pavilions in Hanover and Shanghai, for example. The R&D+I work is based on the challenge to create environment-friendly products, manufactured industrially without using additives, with lower energy consumption.

As a result, expanded cork agglomerate was recently recognised as one of the most innovative products for sustainable construction and included in the BuildingGreen Top-10 Products for 2013.

Whether in the context of eco-efficient projects or in traditional construction, the commitment to R&D+I leads to distinguishing solutions which pave the way for the application of cork in all types of construction projects. Today, expanded cork agglomerate is a product with possibilities that range from supporting beams to thermal and acoustic insulation, from the more traditional to the specialised - such as acoustic insulation against aircraft or percussive noise.

From the range of activities of the R&D of this Business Unit, the research with a view to the evolution of the product MDFachada must be highlighted, which was developed as a finish for exterior walls. This solution enables all the natural characteristics of expanded cork agglomerate to be enjoyed, including its natural appearance. The most recent innovation under way is the possibility to present various design options for this product, it being likely that the trend shall be towards innovative formats.

Recent attention has been focused on some of the most pioneering and exciting projects, such as the use of expanded cork agglomerate in the development of pieces of furniture for the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion.