Hitting a new high – Hemp industry and innovations continue to grow like weeds

July 30, 2017 |

In Florida, former Dell executive Bruce Dietzen created a car made from hemp that runs on biofuel and is touted as carbon neutral. Industrial hemp grows as Vermont registers more than 80 new hemp growers so far this year alone.

It’s been busy lately for the hemp industry. News of the latest biobased hemp car, called Renew, and Vermont’s latest statistics on their state’s hemp industry’s growth made Biofuels Digest wonder what is it about hemp that is so hip? Will we be wearing our hemp shirt and eating our hemp snack bar while driving in our hemp car that runs on hemp biofuel, on our way to our office building built with hemp construction materials?

No, we aren’t high. We just see a growing trend in innovation and hemp based products that make us wonder why is it making a comeback? What new crazy things are innovators coming up with using this material from nature? How are governments supporting hemp around the world? And what does the future hold for hemp?

Let’s start with the car

Apparently, Henry Ford created the first hemp car back in 1941 with a prototype made from soybean, hemp and other agricultural fibers as a way to integrate agriculture with the emerging auto industry and as a way to manage steel shortages during World War II. Ford didn’t get a chance to mass produce the car, however, with the oil industry pressuring government to lower gasoline prices and increase alcohol taxes which helped to quickly shut down Ford’s vision of his biofuel driven biobased car.

So why are we so enamored with the Renew car made by Dietzen? It seems to be one of the greenest cars out there today. Let’s compare hemp to trees: Trees take about 20 years to grow, but hemp only takes about 3 or 4 months and often can be replanted several times throughout the year. The fast-growing feedstock means it can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere quickly and help make it a carbon neutral option.

Another reason is the strength of hemp fibers. Hemp fibers have been used for many years in ropes and textiles because of their strength, making it a perfect material for something that needs to be strong yet lightweight, like a car. In fact, Jay Leno test drove a Renew recently and he and Dietzen demonstrated in a video how strong the car was by pounding on the hood and showing no indents from the force impact.

What else can we make with hemp?

Look around you right now. Whatever you see around you, it probably can be made with hemp. The options are endless and hemp innovation goes from things we’ve heard of like medicinal use, paper, clothing, and biofuels to things you probably never imagined like eyeglasses, buildings, and airplanes.

In April, NUU reported that 25-year-old designer Sam Whitten launched Hemp Eyewear in Scotland, a glasses brand using industrial-grade hemp imported from Eastern Europe. The hemp undergoes a compression-molding process, and the glasses are sealed with resin. So far, Hemp Eyewear has five styles. “Hemp is a leading-edge sustainable technology that turns organic plant fiber into solid material that is lighter and stronger than carbon fiber. ” Whitten told the Scotsman. Hemp is easy to grow, even in poor soil; does not require weed killers; and uses relatively low amounts of water. “The applications for this are almost limitless, but more importantly it is made from a renewable resource,” he said.

As reported in NUU in January, Hempearth Group in North Carolina is planning to order a four-seater aircraft composed of 75% industrial hemp. The company was performing structural testing on industrial hemp with the hopes of replacing fiberglass with plant-based composites made up of hemp and plastics. Hemp, which is naturally flame retardant, will be used in several components, including the wings, outer shell, and seats. The greener, light-weighted aircraft could also use hemp-based biofuel if approval by aviation regulators is achieved in time. The plane will be designed and built by small-plane maker Velocity Inc., which did some of its own testing on the material’s strength and durability before agreeing to the build. Wingspan is expected to be 36-feet. Hempearth hopes to hold the plane’s inaugural flight in Kitty Hawk, Virginia in 2018.

Hemp is gaining ground as a building and construction material as well. In December, NUU reported that researchers and builders in six different EU countries are finding that using textiles, hemp, straw and other plant-based biomaterials absorb moisture, prevent mold, improve building acoustics, and offer energy savings better than conventional building material. Applications range from roofing to insulation using biomaterials such as recycled and leftover textile scraps and waste, hemp, straw, and other natural fibers that breathe and thus are great at absorbing moisture. The project is headed up by ISOBIO which includes 11 partners across Europe, and includes companies like Rooflys and researchers at the Technical University of Madrid in Spain, and the BRE Centre for Innovative Construction Materials at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom.

Government support for hemp

Now that we know we can make all sorts of things with hemp, it’s nice to see governments getting behind the idea.

As reported in Biofuels Digest earlier this month, the Nebraska governor has competition for the Republican primary election next year in a young woman who is putting the focus on strengthening agriculture with a platform that heavily supports hemp production for biofuels, aiming to making the state the national leader in hemp-based biofuel manufacturing. She wants to bring young people into farming as well as improve education and healthcare in addition to legalizing marijuana.

We reported in May that Florida state legislators are looking to ease restrictions on industrial hemp research. According to the Florida State Senate, house bill 1217 that “authorizes specified universities in state to engage in industrial hemp research projects” has been “pending review of CS under Rule 7.18(c)”. Representative Ralph Massullo, sponsor of the bill, said industrial hemp is a viable crop option for industry-starved rural areas and may “even surpass oranges”. The proposed Florida house bill states:

Industrial hemp is a suitable crop for this state, and its production will contribute positively to the future of agriculture in the state. The infrastructure needed to process industrial hemp will increase business opportunities and new jobs in communities throughout the state. As a food crop, industrial hemp seeds and oil produced from the seeds have high nutritional value, including healthy fats and proteins. As a fiber crop, industrial hemp can be used in the manufacture of products such as clothing, building supplies, and animal bedding.

Bruce Perlowin, CEO of Hemp, Inc. commented, “Florida has been cautious when it comes to hemp since the government banned it alongside marijuana. This is why we continually educate the public on the difference between hemp and marijuana. Industrial hemp has absolutely no recreational applications. It only has medical and industrial applications. You can’t get high on hemp if you wanted to. It is impossible. While the plants are closely related, hemp has only very small traces of THC.”

Also in May, NUU reported that hemp is gaining traction as an agricultural crop now that South Carolina state legislature and Governor Henry McMaster have passed a bill allowing farmers to grow industrial hemp. More than 30 other states like Kentucky and Tennessee have already allowed industrial hemp farming, but South Carolina’s bill is somewhat limited as it is only issuing 20 farming permits in the coming year, each one only allowing up to 20 acres of industrial hemp farming. Over the next two years, the numbers increase to 50 permits with up to 50 acres each. South Carolina’s weather bodes well for hemp farmers as they can get three and possibly four crop harvests each year, making it a profitable pursuit.

Pennsylvania wants to get in on the hemp action too. As reported in Biofuels Digest in March, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture approved 16 research proposals that seek to demonstrate the value and viability of industrial hemp cultivation in the state. The projects were approved under the new Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program, which the department launched in December after Governor Tom Wolf and the General Assembly enacted Act 92 of 2016. Most projects intend to build on existing knowledge of how to optimize industrial hemp production in Pennsylvania, including a better understanding of what varieties will grow well in the state and what farming practices are best for industrial hemp growth. Several explore novel characteristics of hemp growth, evaluating its potential as a cover crop to inhibit weed growth and its potential to remediate contaminated soils by absorbing contaminants, along with water and nutrition. Many of the projects include research on potential uses of the harvested stalks and seeds for biofuels, animal bedding, feed, human food products, or manufactured goods.

Hemp has government support internationally as well, not just in the U.S. Biofuels Digest reported in May that in North Korea, the government is pushing farmers to grow hemp instead of soybeans, not to produce cooking oil as claimed but instead to produce biofuel to power drones. The country relies entirely on fuel imports from China and has recently been exposed to spiking prices in light of a possible fuel embargo as tensions between the two countries increase. Hemp has been grown for cooking fuel in the country since the 1980s.

As reported in Biofuels Digest in February, the South Australian government will back a plan to allow hemp growing for industrial uses including for biofuel. Victoria was the first state to allow hemp production in 1998, followed but all other states except for South Australia and the Northern Territory. Though the industry acknowledged that it will take some time to get it up and running, following in the footsteps of Canada and the U.S., that should the policy be implemented soon, then crop trials could already be started this year.

Bottom Line

We could have written about many other states and countries that are supporting industrial hemp, and countless of other new hemp products coming out every week, and that’s the point. There’s much to write about because hemp is hot. It’s a renewable, greener alternative for many current products out there, it’s quick to grow and removes carbon dioxide from the air helping efforts to curb climate change, it’s something that helps farmers and agriculture around the world, it’s super strong and lightweight making it an amazing biomaterial for so many uses. The future looks lit up with hemp paving the way for better sustainable products in many industries.

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