Portuguese cork gets wings as stoppers war rages on

Mon Feb 1, 2010 11:41am EST
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By Andrei Khalip

LISBON (Reuters) - Making cork fly is easy, just pop a bottle of bubbly. But imagine a plane with wings largely made of pressed cork soaring through the skies.

From aircraft in the sky to the microscopic depths of the cork oak genome, researchers in Portugal are working to ensure a high-flying future for cork -- light, natural fire retardant -- even if demand for traditional bottle stoppers keeps waning.

Stubby, leafy oaks, bark carefully stripped from the trunks, line the road leading to the French-owned DynAero aircraft plant in Portugal's central-south Alentejo region -- the world's main cork growing area.

Plane parts designed and molded here could help shape the future of a national industry that employs some 12,000 workers, exports over 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion) a year in cork -- more than 2 percent of total exports -- and helps prevent Portugal's drying south from becoming a desert.

Portugal's annual output of 157,000 tonnes of cork is just over half of the world's total.

DynAero's desire to build its ultralight two- and four-seat planes from cork instead of plastic seems only natural in such a place, but there is more to it than the material's abundance.

"Year after year, cork wine bottle closures are getting replaced by new materials. Producers know they have to go to more sophisticated applications," said DynAero director Philippe Sence, explaining the reasons behind the "Aerocork" project, launched last year jointly with three Portuguese firms.

Among them is the world's largest cork producer Corticeira Amorim, struggling to recover market share in the bottle stopper market, reduced to 70-75 percent from over 90 percent since the 1990s by the advance of metal screw caps and plastic closures.   Continued...

<p>A man places a prototype cork wing on top of the currently-used plastic wing in DynAero's light plane to verify measurements, in a hangar at the Evora airfield September 20, 2009. REUTERS/Nacho Doce/Files</p>