Turning Volcanos Into Business at NatuRock JapanEconomy Science Technology
An Untapped Resource
The world is confronting a whole host of environmental problems, from global climate change to related issues like the “heat island” phenomenon in urban areas. One company has risen to meet these unprecedented challenges—NatuRock Japan, an innovator that already has its eye on twenty-second century human needs.
On our visit to NatuRock Japan, looking to find out more about its business, we were surprised to see that its president, Satō Toshiaki, did not fit the profile of his company’s environmental image—decked out as he was in a bracelet and necklace that made him look more like a fashion designer.
“This NatuRock jewelry I’m wearing is made from volcanic rock,” Satō explains. “It’s just one of the products that we sell. Volcanic rock offers all sorts of possibilities. And to spread the word about the hidden potential of this substance, we’re developing a wide range of products made from it. This jewelry is an easily recognizable symbol of what volcanic rock has to offer.”
A Natural Approach
Japan is a volcanically active land. Even its natural symbol, Mount Fuji, is a volcano. That majestic peak has not erupted for close to three centuries, but old lava flows can be found throughout the surrounding area.
Satō Toshiaki was born in the foothills of Mount Fuji. In his twenties, he began working at a local concrete company established by his grandfather. But seeing the contrast between that concrete production site and the surrounding beauty of Mount Fuji raised a doubt in his mind. “I couldn’t help thinking that something inorganic like concrete just didn’t suit the beautiful landscape in the foothills of Fuji,” he recalls.
Based on this outlook, Satō proposed covering the drab surfaces of concrete with volcanic rock from the area around the mountain. In other words, his idea was to apply volcanic rock as a sort of “make-up” to beautify the surface of concrete. Along with volcanic rock, Satō also suggested the use of other types of natural rocks to make surfaces blend in better with their surroundings.
After trying a variety of different adhesive methods and testing their durability, Satō developed a product that combines volcanic and other natural types of rock with concrete. He named the new product NatuRock to conjure the image of a product in touch with nature. In 1987 he established the company NatuRock Japan.
NatuRock was a product intended initially to improve the look of surfaces, allowing them to blend in better with the scenery. After a few years, though, Satō realized that moss and plants were growing out of the porous surface of the volcanic rock. This unexpected development made him aware of the potential of volcanic rock for fostering vegetation. He explains:
“On the inside of volcanic rock there are innumerable holes, making it permeable to water and air and allowing it to maintain an optimal temperature. And the rock is also rich in minerals. At the time magma is emitted from a volcano, all of the living organisms are killed. But as it cools and congeals into rock over the years, it naturally becomes home to moss and plants, attracts insects, and becomes something inviting to animals and people. The history of the earth testifies to the power of volcanic rock to revitalize ecosystems.”
Twenty-Second Century Materials
The features of volcanic rock make it well-suited to reviving the ecosystems of urban areas when used as a construction material, and NatuRock Japan has developed a string of new products to exploit that potential. One such material is BioBoard, a thin board of concrete with embedded volcanic rock that can be attached to the exterior of already existing buildings. Another NatuRock material, which does not contain concrete, is a super-thin, ultra-lightweight material called BioFilm, which can be cut to any size and attached to curved surfaces.
“Just by attaching BioBoard or BioFilm it becomes possible to turn existing walls green without any major construction,” Satō explains. “One example of a use of BioBoard is the joint project we started roughly ten years ago with a community group called Protect the Fireflies, based in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture, to attach BioBoard to the concrete embankments of the Uchiyama River. This has resulted in the natural growth of vegetation there and a cleaner river, and has attracted around 3,000 fireflies to inhabit the area. The project allowed members of the community to work together to make it a greener place, rather than relying on a big general contractor. This shows how NatuRock Japan products can be the perfect materials for public works projects in this century and into the twenty-second century.”
Offering Groundbreaking Products
A drive is underway in Japanese urban areas today to alleviate the “heat island” effect by adding vegetation to building roofs. In fact, though, the benefits are somewhat limited when greenfication is confined to the rooftops. NatuRock Japan has been going beyond a roof-only approach to add vegetation to the concrete surfaces of urban riverbanks as well as expressway and railway barriers.
In 2008, for example, around 228 square meters of the surface of the Yoyogi parking area of Tokyo’s Shuto Expressway were covered in vegetation using NatuRock Japan’s BioBoard Box, a product that beautifies concrete surfaces with the addition of boxes from which vegetation can grow. This improvement project, which took a mere two days to implement, used the existing exterior surfaces and did not require any new construction. This is an example of the kinds of innovative, unprecedented products that the company is offering. However, pioneering products are not always embraced by everyone at first, as Satō notes:
“Without any past precedent or record of success, it’s hard for people to gauge the possibilities and market value of a new product. Still, there will always be those who can appreciate its potential. Even when people in Japan were slow to understand the value of our products, we were gaining recognition overseas. In 1999 we exhibited our product lineup in Italy at BIBM, the world’s biggest trade show for precast concrete products, and attracted a lot of favorable attention from those in attendance from Europe and North America. Our NatuRock jewelry made from volcanic rock has also gained international attention in the fashion industry. My basic belief is that if you show a passion for something, it will eventually lead to such recognition.”
A Wealth of New Applications
NatuRock Japan is channeling its years of accumulated volcanic rock know-how into new products and businesses. For example, the company is developing a business aimed at fostering vegetation in desert areas of the Middle East, and is also considering the use of volcanic rock in countries damaged by volcanoes as a way to foster new industries for their inhabitants. The company is also proposing a business it calls “green advertising,” which will involve the placement of corporate advertisements on surfaces covered in vegetation.
There is no end to the new ideas that NatuRock Japan is pursuing, including the idea—still at the developmental phase—of using volcanic rock to help rebuild the areas of northeast Japan devastated by the earthquake and tsunami that struck on March 11, 2011. President Satō is firmly convinced that volcanic rock is a potential boon for the world.
- A Message from the Company President
- President Satō Toshiaki with the character kabe, meaning “wall.”
- Walls made of inorganic materials can be found throughout urban areas. And there are also “walls” in the figurative sense that we all have to overcome in our lives and work. At times, these walls block the view of what lies ahead. Figuring out how to deal with such walls is a vital task. I think the essential purpose of my job is to come up with ways to transform those figurative and concrete walls.
- Corporate Data
- Company name: NatuRock Japan Co., Ltd.
- Address: Stoke Building Akasaka 3rd floor, 7-10-6 Akasaka, Minato-ku Tokyo 107-0052
- Representative: Satō Toshiaki, President
- Business: Development, production, and sale of biotope products; “green advertising” and sales promotions using surfaces covered with vegetation
- Capitalization: ¥11 million
- Employees: 11
- Website: http://www.naturock.co.jp
(Originally written in Japanese by Tsuda Hiroshi and Nihashi Ayano. Photographs by Matsumura Takafumi.)