New Life for an Old Plant
Creative & Alternative Uses for Industrial Hemp
Industrial hemp is a cannabis plant variety with very low concentrations of the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that is grown specifically for industrial purposes. It grows quite quickly and has a wide range of applications, as many useful products can be derived from it. Hemp can be processed into pulp for making paper, spun into fibres for creating textiles, made into food, fuel, plastics, and much more.
Although cannabis is known for its psychoactive properties, industrial hemp is a distinct strain that is not capable of causing a psychoactive response, or ‘high,’ in humans. Despite this, growing hemp without a permit was made illegal in the United States in 1970 under the Controlled Substances Act. Prior to this legislation, farming hemp was common practice, and hemp products were widely available, but these changes stopped industrial hemp production almost entirely. As a result, there were no large-scale hemp farms operating in the United States until 2012. In November of that year, Colorado passed an amendment that made growing cannabis legal statewide, and farmers began growing the crop again.
Since that time, many states have followed suit, and the industrial hemp industry has been growing consistently ever since. In a paper published by the Congressional Research Service in 2017, national sales of hemp products were listed at approximately $600 million annually. As more governments move toward the legalization of cannabis, industrial hemp derivatives may begin to replace conventional materials in many products. This could have a lasting positive impact on environmental sustainability.
Products made with industrial hemp can be broken down into two primary categories: those that are derived from whole stalk hemp and those derived from hemp seed. Whole stock derived products can be further broken down into those made from bast fibre, sometimes called the inner-bark, and those made from the hurd, the woody core of the hemp stock.
Bast fibres can be processed into clothing and other fabric products, canvas, rope, and carpet, as well as a number of innovative industrial materials such as geotextiles, bio-composites, and nonwovens. Hurd can be processed into various kinds of paper, livestock bedding, and mulch for farming and gardening. It can be pressed into an extremely durable hemp-based fiberboard and can be mixed with the mineral lime to create a special material called hempcrete which can be used as insulation or an alternative to conventional concrete.
Products made with hemp seed can be further broken down into three specialized categories. They are made either from the nut, the oil, or in some cases, the entire seed is processed into a product called hemp seed cake. Hemp nut is used in a wide variety of food products including bread, granola, and cereal. Hemp oil can also be used in food products such as margarine and salad oil, body care products like soaps, lotions and cosmetics, and a number of industrial products like paints, lubricants, and even fuel.
Industrial hemp seed cake has been adopted in the agricultural industry in some countries as an ingredient in livestock feed. This product is rich in protein as well as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and has been shown to improve the health of some animals while increasing their average size, making it a valuable alternative to conventional feed.
In the United States, this practice is not yet permitted. A bill was brought before the Colorado Senate last year directing the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) to begin feasibility studies regarding hemp seed cake as animal feed, and it passed unanimously. According to Colorado’s official state website, the CDA has not approved the ingredient for sale in commercial products at this time.
Despite the slow pace at which the wheels of progress turn, growing acceptance of the cannabis sativa plant family as a whole is driving the deregulation of industrial hemp for use in commercial and industrial applications. Hemp-based bioplastic production is another key area of innovation that is experiencing a recent surge in attention and research.
As the world seeks to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, bioplastics have come to the forefront as an alternative to petrochemical plastics. According to a report from cannabistech.com, as of 2015, the world had produced more than 6,300 million metric tonnes of plastic, nearly eighty percent of which has found its way into oceans and the natural environment. Experts predict that this will nearly double by 2050 if current practices go unchanged. Alternative plastics made from renewable plant-based sources may be one solution to this problem.
Bioplastics can be made from the cellulose in plants. While there are a variety of renewable biomass sources containing cellulose, hemp hurd is one of the best sources available as the plant’s fibres can be more than seventy percent cellulose. So far, bioplastics have not been widely adopted, though the technology is not new. Some early Ford cars were made using a composite bioplastic made from corn and soybean oil, but until recently, the market for bioplastics made from hemp cellulose have been mostly untapped.
At the end of 2017, Titan Hemp, a leading provider of hemp commodities, announced that it had partnered with biotechnology engineering organization Green Growers Technology Alliance to form Titan Bioplastics, a company that will manufacture plant-based packaging products, among other plastic wares. As research in this field advances, these biological-based materials may begin to replace many petroleum-based plastic products, and industrial hemp will likely play an important role in that transition.
Industrial hemp oil is also a viable source for producing a renewable fuel called biodiesel. Biofuels can be made from different renewable biomass sources and are valuable because they are a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels, but their production comes with a cost. Since they are made primarily from food sources like corn, soybeans, peanuts, or rapeseed, they are grown on prime arable farmland that would otherwise be used to grow food. Hemp, on the other hand, can grow rapidly in infertile soils, making it an attractive source for this process because it would leave higher-quality farmland for food production.
A collaborative study by the departments of chemistry and plant study at the University of Connecticut found that virgin hemp seed oil could be converted into biodiesel with greater than ninety-seven percent efficiency and that it could be used at lower temperatures than any other biodiesel on the market.
Furthermore, hemp stalks can be processed into another type of biofuel called cellulosic bioethanol. This is a fuel that can be derived from the cellulose in the fibres of plants. It can be harvested from many sources including trees, leaves, plant stalks, grass clippings, and paper waste. However, hemp is among the best sources of cellulosic biomass since it is produced at a much faster rate and in higher quantity than any alternative. The cellulose in these plants is processed into bioethanol which can then be used as fuel. It is slightly less efficient than gasoline in that it takes 1.5 litres of ethanol to produce the same energy as one litre of gasoline, but its major advantage is that it is derived from a renewable plant source that can be grown domestically.
Industrial hemp was once a staple of American agriculture. Past legislative decisions obstructed its growth for decades. However, the legal landscape surrounding its production is rapidly changing. As hemp returns to American markets, researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs are stepping in to find applications for hemp products in every facet of industry.