Bristol’s composite centre designs sustainable seat for wheelchairs used in developing countries

National Composite Centre Motivation wheelchair seat

The National Composite Centre (NCC), based at Emersons Green near Bristol has developed a wheelchair seat pan made entirely from sustainable, green composite materials that are not only better for the environment but could significantly improve the quality of life for disabled people in developing countries.

The centre was responding to a call from Motivation, the Bristol-based global disability charity that provides wheelchairs, training and services to disabled people in low- and middle-income countries.

Motivation had asked for help in developing a new wheelchair seat pan concept that would be robust to cope with rough terrain, affordable to produce, and made from bio-based materials that could be locally sourced within those countries. Most importantly, the charity wanted to prove the concept of a new design that would offer a lightweight, durable and hygienic solution. There are 75 million people worldwide in need of a wheelchair – and 80 per cent of them live in developing countries.

Composites are well-known for their durability, strength and lightweighting properties. The charity currently produces wheelchair cushions from PU foam, which sit on either fabric ‘slung’ seats that are tensioned between framed sides, or a plywood base. These provide postural support and pressure management that is vital to wheelchair users who are at risk of developing pressure sores and other medical issues. However, the constant and prolonged use of fabric seats can result in stretching that compromises user posture, while plywood may degrade. The sculpted foam cushion may also degrade or become unhygienic due to hot, humid climates and potential soiling.

Ian Harris, Senior Designer at Motivation, said: “Motivation’s collaboration with the NCC has allowed us to realise the production of a prototype seating pan that had existed as just an idea in our heads. Together we’ve been able to create an exciting concept for a solution to real-world challenges faced by wheelchair users in low- and middle-income countries. The use of green composites could be a game-changer for the assistive technology sector and creates a challenge to ensure more sustainable practices through innovative thinking. We’re grateful to the NCC team for supporting our important work to keep improving the provision of wheelchairs around the world.”

Adam Healey, Research Engineer at the National Composites Centre who led the project team, said: “This is the first ever wheelchair seat pan made entirely from green materials for the developing world market, so it’s been a really exciting and rewarding project for us to work on with Motivation. By designing the seat with localised manufacture in mind, we’re not only reducing the carbon footprint associated with transportation but we’re helping to create more opportunities, such as employment, for local people in developing countries.

“There is so much scope to optimise this design further, and many opportunities to explore the end-of-life potential for this design so that the seat pans can be easily recycled, bringing even more environmental benefits. This opens the door for us to make more wheelchair components out of green composites.”