As a Dane living in the Alpes-Maritimes in southern France, I have had the opportunity to experiment with Mediterranean fibers, from epiphytic lichen that can be found in the mountains, to Neptune balls which are common on Mediterranean shores. Wandering on the beach, I became fascinated by the massive quantity of small, brown, finely constructed fiber balls, ranging from 2 to 10 centimeters in diameter, which spread out all across the sand. I began to pick some up and bring them home to the studio to research and examine them for artistic purposes.
Neptune balls, often called sea balls, originate from the plant Posidonia oceanica, commonly called Neptune grass, Mediterranean tapeweed, or “the lung of the Mediterranean.” Though it can be confused with seaweed, it is in fact a species of sea grass, with both fruits and flowers (which seaweed does not have). Posidonia oceanica grows at depths of 1 to 45 meters, and the leaves, which are approximately 1 centimeter wide and 1.5 meter in length, look like long, green bands. In autumn, winter, and spring, the withered or older Neptune grasses are crushed together and washed up by the waves, arriving ashore either as torn bands or as small balls of densely knotted fibers. The fruit also floats onto the beaches separately.
Posidonia oceanica is important for the ecosystem. It grows best in completely clean water and its presence serves as an indicator of good water quality. Thought to be one of the oldest growing plants in the world, underwater “meadows” of Neptune grass can generate five times more oxygen than the same area of rain forest. It also protects the beaches from erosion, and safeguards the many sea creatures that hide amongst its tall, green grasses. The sea grass is part of Mediterranean culture, as indicated by its name: Poseidon is the Greek sea god; Neptune is his Roman name. As a result of pollution, Neptune grass is in decline, reflecting the way that we humans treat our globe in general.
Because of the way that Neptune balls “litter” the Mediterranean’s beaches, they have come to be seen as a nuisance. But the dried balls of Posidonia oceanica have served a variety of important purposes throughout history. They have been used as packing protection for glass and ceramics from Venice, and for the wrapping of fish for transportation. They have also had medicinal uses as a disinfectant: fishermen steeped the grasses in alcohol and put the poultice on wounds. Dried, clean leaves of Posidonia oceanica were put into pillow covers to cure people suffering from bronchitis. It has been used as fuel, and as a substitute for hay in making sun-dried bricks. This marvelous plant has so many possibilities that could help communities around the world, but only if the environmental system that supports it can endure.1
As preparation for an artist panel in Italy, at the Lucca Paper Biennale 2018, I spent a lot of time thinking about handmade paper in the twenty-first century. The topic of the panel was “Paper in the Future,” and Neptune balls came to my mind once more. I did more research and found that the German architect Richard Meier (not to be confused with the American architect having the same name) had given Neptune balls a new purpose, namely as insulation material in the building industry.
On holiday in Spain in 2006, Richard Meier became curious about the small fiber balls on a beach in Alicante. He found them similar to the wood fiber that is usually used for thermal insulation in the building industry. He tried to burn one of the balls and realized that it was naturally self-extinguishing, a very suitable property for building construction. As the balls are considered a polluting material to be disposed of, he thought that their possible use as a natural insulating product could result in a perfect combination of ecological and commercial success. He brought some samples to Germany, so they could be checked for physical properties and thorough evaluation for industrial development. At The Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics and Fraunhofer Institute of Chemical Technology, the Neptune balls were examined for insulation capacities, self-extinguishing properties, fire resistance, and resistance to decay. Neptune balls were revealed to be a perfect, natural, insulating product, owing to its low flammability, high resistance to mold, and its absorptivity, needing a quantity of primary energy almost 30 times less than traditional insulating products such as wood and glass fibers.
Richard Meier founded NeptuTherm, and, since 2010, the company NeptuGmbH based in Karlsruhe, Germany, has been developing Neptune balls as a sustainable insulating material. The firm has grown from two to seven employees. Sadly, Richard Meier died in 2016. Today, the company is run by Richard Meier’s wife Monika Meier and their son Michael Meier.2
During their transformation into functional insulation, the Neptune balls go through a mechanical shaker which separates the balls and dislodges the sand. Then the balls are spread onto a conveyer belt for grinding, and finally the material is packed into bags, without any addition of chemical products.3 The reuse of a naturally occurring fiber without environmental damage aligns perfectly with the increasing necessity in the twenty-first century to consider the sources of the materials we use.
Because of Richard Meier’s intuition, the German building industry now has an innovative, natural, ecological and very efficient insulation material which is completely pollution-free during production and use. NeptuGmbH has received many awards in Germany. The company is currently collaborating with others to broaden awareness of their sustainable product. In this effort, they are working with several artists and designers, providing material to them in the development of art products.
Paper art is a meta art form. I find that working in collaboration with scientists, architects, biologists, geologists, historians, technologists, psychologists, and specialists in other disciplines can open up new contexts for hand papermaking. Crossing borders can be extremely inspiring and rewarding. Around the globe there are many exciting projects taking place that seek to transform former uselessness (such as agricultural waste or invasive plants) into something useful. We all have to support long-term ecological balance and be aware of the invisible chemical cycles which have sustained life since the beginning of time.
1. For more on Posidonia oceanica, go to Scientific Reports, an open-access journal from Nature Research, www.nature.com.
2. Information about Neptune balls and NeptuTherm was provided in email communications with Johannes Kraft (M. Eng.) on behalf of Monika Meier. For more, go to the company website, www.NeptuTherm.de.
3. NeptuTherm declined to illustrate machine types or provide more detailed description of their manufacturing process for this article.