Beyond CBD: Hemp is Remedy for a Wasteful, Fossil-based PlanetThis week, CannabisTech spoke with Carl Lehrburger, Co-Founder of PureHemp Technology for an inside look at how their advanced hemp-refining platform could change the world as we know it.
Basking in the light of an alchemy moment for the hemp industry, PureHemp (Fort Lupton, Colorado) has set the stage to prove how hemp can change the course of humanity with an advanced technology called, the Continuous Countercurrent Reactor (CCR). While most entrepreneurs in the hemp industry just recently got involved, Carl, his brother Ed Lehrburger and CTO Richard Wingerson founded PureHemps parent company PureVision Technology, which has been processing biomass into valuable products since 2001. When hemp became legal in Colorado in 2014, PureVision created PureHemp to focus on scaling up a new technology to transform hemp stalks rapidly and efficiently into valuable products in hemp refineries.
While the personal success stories from CBD consumers proliferate throughout the internet, there’s another side to hemp production which cannot be overlooked – environmental impact. In CBD production, producers now only process the flowers for medicines and nutraceuticals, which is just a fraction of the whole plant and the rest is underutilized or just goes to waste. PureHemp’s CCR technology is on target as a long-term, industrial-scale solution to recover hemp stalks, realize lost revenues, as well as leave a cleaner planet for our future generations.
Our Future Depends on Hemp
Our past is littered with prohibition, not only of marijuana but until the Farm Bill was signed, government authorities considered industrial hemp a Schedule I narcotic. This “all or nothing” federal stance against the plant effectively crippled the US growers, producers, and equipment providers. “Our countrymen have lost the knowledge on how to grow, process, and make hemp-based products,” Lehrburger explained. Essentially, prohibition stunted nearly seven decades of innovation and technological advances in processing and utilizing this valuable renewable resource.
Fortunately, now that hemp is legal, the brilliant minds at PureHemp are demonstrating how hemp can lead our nation into a greener future. While the company spent the last several years processing hemp flowers into CBD-rich, consumer products for their Pure Kind BotanicalsTM brand and private label customers, Lehrburger admits it was a necessary means to advance their company and pay their employees. But the heart of the PureHemp mission is processing the whole plant -- flower, seeds, and stalks -- into valuable products.
Eliminating Waste & Adding Value
Underutilized materials, often referred to as waste, is prevalent today, even in the environmentally-friendly hemp world. Biomass residues, such as corn stalks, wheat, and rice straw, and hemp stalks are lost revenue and create environmental problems, if not recovered. Lehrburger pointed out, “It’s just a matter of time before the tons and tons of hemp stalk begin to accumulate and the industry is going to be forced to address the growing stockpiles and a bad situation.” With a rich background in researching ways to process biomass, PureHemp recognizes a much higher potential for the hemp stalks.
Many farmers typically dry, collect and sell biomaterials like hemp stalks and corn stover to be used for animal bedding and landscaping needs for between $75 - $150 per ton. However, with added value processing including decortication (mechanical separation of long and short fiber in stalks), pelletizing (compaction) and milling processes (size reduction), hemp stalk intermediates have marketable attributes and desirable qualities. Long fibers, known as bast fiber is used in making building productions like insulation, rope, and canvas. While China and India mills make hemp clothing from textile grade fiber, it will take a significant investment in textile milling infrastructure to achieve this in the US. However, with so much other “low hanging fruit” for bast fiber products in the auto, building and environmental restoration industries, there is no reason to attempt to make textile grade fibers at the outset. The inner hemp stalk short fiber, known as hurd, is the second fiber intermediate that is used to make hemp plastics and hempcrete. These post-decorticated hurd intermediates present a potential value of $350-500 per ton to the grower, while the bast can sell for much higher value depending on the quality
However, as Lehrburger reminds us, the lack of processing infrastructure is the major challenge to effective utilization of the whole hemp plant. “Today we don’t have the necessary infrastructure in the US to process the stalks. As a nation and as an industry we have to invest in hemp refining infrastructure to give growers a pathway for added value agriculture and end users a steady supply of materials. It’s going to take capital to grow the processing supply chain, whether it be a CBD hemp variety or a seed variety. But the key to whole hemp utilization is refining the stalks so we can begin meeting the growing demand for hemp intermediates by industries and hemp products for consumers”, he said.
Hemp decortication and milling facilities are few and far today, which is ironic because the entry cost is low relative to establishing pulping manufacturing infrastructure. While these mechanical and relatively simple processes can facilitate significant recovery of stalks for fiber applications, the emerging bio-economy requires economically and environmentally advanced technology solution.
Continuous Countercurrent Processing
Over the last 15 years, PureHemp’s parent company, has developed the Continuous Countercurrent Reactor technology to convert biomass including hemp stalks into bioproducts rapidly. While the core technology is synonymous with a pulp mill, rather than batch processing at paper mills, the CCR is a continuous process. Additionally, CCRs require a smaller footprint, less capital investment, and fewer operating costs than conventional pulp mills with corresponding environmental benefits including carbon-neutral processing. When using the hemp stalks as an energy source to power the refinery, the processing facility can become carbon negative while providing bio-products to a ready world.
The CCR rapidly converts stalks into three separate, highly-functional intermediate materials including,
- Pulp for making paper and other paper-based products
- Sugars to produce chemicals and alcohols
- Lignin, which is 20% of the stalk, for specialty chemicals and replacing oil-based plastics
“Each of these bio-intermediates become a key ingredient in making bio-based and hemp-based products to replace our antiquated oil-based world,” Lehrburger said, noting that PureHemp is now producing hemp pulp to be converted into hemp business cards and paper packaging.
Replacing Oil Takes a Village
There is no question, petroleum is not a renewable resource, and our oil resources are depleting at an exponential rate. Additionally, extracting, transporting, and combusting petroleum presents local and global environmental problems,
- Air Pollution – oil refineries release toxins into the air which are damaging the ecosystem and dangerous for people. Plus, burning gasoline releases CO2 contributing to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, as well as, benzene, a known carcinogen.
- Oil Spills – extracting and transporting oil creates an opportunity for oil spills and the catastrophic aftermath.
- Fracking – hydraulic fracturing is diverting resources from renewable energy sources, releasing hydrocarbons into the air and water, promoting a carbon-based economy and may be contributing to earthquakes.
“It’s not just a technology solution we are proposing here, but a collaboratory effort to replace oil refineries with biorefineries,” Lehrburger proclaimed. “We need to evolve out of the fossil fuel age and evolve into a renewable, bio-economy that is in harmony with nature instead of destroying it,” he continued.
Lehrburger explained that the PureHemp deployment plan is to license the CCR technology and cultivate ventures to develop hemp refineries worldwide. The technology scale-up to achieve an economical scale of production, where hemp and biomass feedstocks can compete with oil refineries, requires committed stakeholders, real-world visionaries and entrepreneurs, renaissance scientists and resources to transform our industry and our planet. After investing millions into developing the CCR technology, PureHemp is ready to move to the next phase.
“We need to advance from our pilot-scale operation, which allows us to produce barrel-quantities of hemp pulp to make hemp paper packaging, to the small commercial demonstration size,” he said. “This entails raising millions to demonstrate the full range of capabilities of the CCR technology’. PureHemp is out to show the hemp industry we can successfully turn that straw into money and show the world we can replace oil-based products with hemp-based products,” he said.
Almost echoing the words of Jacob Vigil from the University of New Mexico, Lehrburger believes the altruistic nature and health orientations of hempsters and cannabis consumers will continue to drive the future of the hemp industry. “We along with hemp product consumer, growers and businesses genuinely believe our hemp industry is making a difference in creating a better world."
To learn more about advancing whole hemp processing and building a greener future with hemp refineries everywhere, contact [email protected].