Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A little hemp may help that concert

Fibre touted for use in speakers

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ARENA concert sound systems deliver a much cleaner sound than they did back in the day.

But there's room for improvement. For instance, who can ever actually hear the words of the lead singer's between-song banter?

Daryl Lazarescu thinks he may have a solution and it comes from an unlikely source -- Manitoba-grown hemp.

Lazarescu's company, Pro Sound & Communications, and the Composites Innovation Centre are developing a large-format speaker horn using a hemp-fibre mat to replace the fibreglass material traditionally used in audio speakers.

"The target market is aimed primarily at venues that are a bit more difficult acoustically, like arenas and large churches with reflective walls and surfaces," Lazarescu said. "The idea is to get the sound on to the listener and away from the reflective surfaces."

The 96 cm X 66 cm X 117 cm speakers are large enough to contain all of the speech range so that the listener won't hear the reflected sound.

Simon Potter, a product innovation specialist at the Composites Innovation Centre in Winnipeg, said the CIC has developed all sorts of prototypes -- everything from bus doors to motorcycle parts to spectacles and caskets -- replacing items made with traditional materials with bio-fibres made with locally grown hemp or flax.

"We'd never done anything with sound-reproduction systems, but we thought it would be very cool," Potter said.

"We knew hemp had some unique acoustical properties and we thought it might have a warmer sound quality to it."

Lazarescu says he thinks the results are better than what is commercially available, but he's waiting for the actual scientific data to compare with traditional systems.

"I'm very happy with the results. It sounds a little better than conventional fibreglass, and once we get the data we will know more," he said. "Warmer is subjective. Data is quantifiable."

And Lazarescu knows what he's talking about. For the past 12 years he's been in the business of designing and installing audiovisual systems for large facilities from his business, formerly based in Bellingham, Wash.

But the downturn in the U.S. economy inspired a change in focus for Lazarescu, who grew up in Regina.

He decided to move to Winnipeg (where his parents live) to try to develop a differentiating product like the bio-horn while he revives his sound-system integration business in Winnipeg.

Aided by a $25,000 NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) grant with the University of Manitoba, the bio-horn project is already at the state where Lazarescu is able to pitch it to venue operators.

While the actual sound quality from a system of 30 or 40 such horns in a large arena has yet to be demonstrated, Lazarescu said the environmentally friendly and unique acoustic features of the design have already been enough to pique the interest of some large facility operators.

Sean McKay, the CEO of the Composites Innovation Centre, said working on a project like this one fits the CIC's strategy.

The centre has been very successful as a research centre for all sorts of mission-critical composite technologies, including important projects with the aerospace and transportation industries.

Although its bio-composites work is regionally self-contained, one thing that's still missing is a local manufacturer that can convert the hemp or flax fibres into a mat material that allows the bio-fibre to be machined into parts.

For instance, the hemp used in the bio-horn is grown in Manitoba, shipped to Pennsylvania where it's made into mat material, and then shipped back to Winnipeg.

The CIC's strategy is to fill a technology gap, use demonstrated products to get industry to start pulling material through the supply chain and then eventually develop that supply chain to include the establishment of a mat manufacturer in the province.

"The bio-horn may not be huge in terms of the amount of commercial opportunity for a mat manufacturer but in terms of profiling the material in an exotic application it really is a good fit," McKay said.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 22, 2012 B3

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