Hemp: The Feedstock that Dare Not Speak its Name

July 6, 2014 |


You’ve heard its psychoactive cousin, marijuana, described as weed, smoke, ganja, bud, grass, mary jane, reefer, or herb…but advanced bioeconomy feedstock?

Yep, no kidding, there’s a movement to bring hemp back in a big way. The Digest investigates.

We first started tracking hemp back in 2009, when a 43-acre biomass trial launched in California that features hemp as a feedstock. The notoriety of hemp’s cousin, marijuana, has created both passionate supporters and opponents of the feedstock, which for centuries provided useful by-products such as rope, but acquired a massive brand identity problem after reefer acquired wide popularity in the 1960s as a recreational drug.

The prospect of combusting hemp for energy or fuel, well, it prompted some titters. After all, the prospect of a cellulosic process that converts hemp fiber into ethanol struck some readers as a means of “converting dope into hooch,” and it landed the story a place in our 10 Most Bizarre Biofuels Stories round-up for in 2010.

But time passes, and so did laws approving the use of marijuana in Colorado and Washington state — and medical marijuana elsewhere, and hemp has made progress in its return to the above-board commercial world. Earlier this year, the Hawaii state legislature has approved a bill that would allow the University of Hawaii to undertake two years of research into hemp as a biofuel feedstock, but the approved bill has strengthened the language to ensure that marijuana is not used instead of hemp. The state’s House of Represented added $72,600 in research funding to ensure there was enough to undertake the program.

Hemp and dope: the facts

Bottom line, hemp is a non-food crop that grows on infertile land and does not have psychoactive properties like its cousin the cannabis plant. It’s one of a family of plants that provide what are known as “bast fibers”. Bast is the barrier material between the bark and the inner woody material (the “xylem”) of plants like flax, hemp, jute, kenaf, and even stinging nettle.

For many years, these were the primary material in Europe for making cloth — and tales like Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans include scenes of young heroines spinning cloth out of stinging nettles. Though hemp fell into disfavor and outright bans because of its association with marijuana, it’s been making a comeback in the fiber world. In fact, Naturally Advanced Technologies entered into a development and supply agreement with Target in 2011 evaluate the use of its CRAiLAR Flax fiber in Target’s domestic textiles category. The proprietary CRAiLAR enzymatic process turns natural bast fibersinto soft, finished textiles and can be integrated with existing technology for spinning, weaving, or forming fabric.

So, there’s medical (or recreational) hemp and industrial hemp — not the same thing. There’s also a crop known as sunn hemp, a legume that has nothing to do with either.

Hemp markets

Last July, Hemp, Inc. announced that it has signed a deal with KUSH ) to distribute a line of natural hemp-based skin care products featuring the unique properties of the hemp plant which provides powerful relief and scientific cellular rejuvenation. As consideration for licensing rights, Hemp Inc. (HEMP) will immediately transfer 10,000,000 shares of their stock, which is currently trading for about $0.058 per share, to KUSH, a private firm. “KUSH offers Hemp, Inc. the right vehicle to gain a dominant position in the sale of over-the-counter hemp-based skin care line market by joining forces with a new company featuring revolutionary products. In addition, we have tremendous faith in KUSH’s CEO, Steve Kubby, who played a key role in the passage of Prop. 215 and was the second person in history to launch a publicly traded cannabis company,” added Tobias.

Last year, Grass Roots Research and Distribution released a 38-page Information Report on Hemp, Inc. including detailed information on the Company’s business model, products, industry, valuation, management and risks. According to the Report, “The U.S. market for hemp-based products has a highly dedicated and growing demand base, as indicated by recent U.S. market and import data for hemp products and ingredients, as well as market trends for some natural foods and body care products.” In other hemp news, the European Industrial Hemp Association (EIHA) conducted in summer 2012 the first comprehensive survey on cultivation, processing and especially applications of hemp fibres, shivs and seeds.

Hemp and biofuels

In the world of biofuels, the primary interest to date has been from the biodiesel community, which has an interest in hemp oil.

In February, Extreme Biodiesel and subsidiary XTRM Cannabis Ventures received Pre-Approval for a $5 million line of credit from Coastal Mortgage Group for the purpose of purchasing real estate, the companies announced. XTRM plans to use the credit line for purchasing real estate for the purpose of Hemp Cultivation, Medical Marijuana Cultivation and Commercial Real Estate related to dispensaries so long as it’s use is deemed legal. Some of the terms of the line of credit are that any transactions and property use are deemed legal by state and federal authorities, clear title, and that the Company must contribute at least 10 % of the purchase price.

Amongst researchers, a team at the University of Connecticut are experimenting with hemp as a potential biodiesel feedstock and are preparing development of a multi-feedstock manufacturing facility.The 200,000 gpy plant will be built with a $1.8 million grant from the DOE. Research shows that hemp-based biodiesel burns at a lower temperature than biodiesel produced from other feedstocks.

But there are applications as a feedstock for power gen, via pellets.

In 2012, Patriot Biofuels reported that it was testing hemp pellets mixed with coal in Kentucky — the Bluegrass State has long been a a traditional home for hemp growing.

Additional by-products

There’s been attention in Alberta to a broader set of by-products from hemp, including construction materials, animal bedding and such. Back in In July 2012, Alberta Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz announced a $500,000 investment into Advanced Foods and Materials Canada would be focused on using turning flax and hemp waste nto high-quality fiber, in partnership with Blue Goose Biorefineries. At the time, AFM said that increased production and availability of high-value cellulose products will create jobs in manufacturing, transportation, and research and development, to the benefit of the agricultural sector and Canada’s economy as a whole. The technology also benefits the environment by expanding biorefining capabilities.

Alberta was back in the news this past January when Cylab International tipped that it was looking for locations to site $32m plant, which would process hemp fibre into construction materials and animal bedding with biofuel as a by-product. Cylab said that growers were “highly receptive” to the idea of growing hemp for the plants, and that it expected its plant to be operational by 2015.

The Bottom Line

Hemp’s turning into a proxy for the entire industry in some ways. A long developmental period filled with political controversy and early-stage products aimed at the, ahem, “nutraceutical” market. Later, broader interest in the feedstock for products in the home, such as cloth fibers. As scale increases and cost decrease, eventually an interest has developed in terms of the energy and fuel markets.

To date, it’s been highly regionalized interest — Kentucky, Alberta and Hawaii amongst the leaders.

But with the emergence of the first handful of publicly traded companies focusing on hemp — such as Hemp, Inc — you can expect the geography and applications to expend substantially. And, if you can look beyond the stigma associated with cannabis, you might well find a great feedstock for some great applications that’s been unfairly overlooked.

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