Sarah Ratliff   |   March 26, 2020

Innovative Technologies in Hemp: Fresh Ideas in a Transformed Landscape

Amid this COVID-19 outbreak, American manufacturing is looking more inviting as businesses scramble to find replacements for products that once came from China. Could hemp be a saving grace for materials and innovation?
Following 20 years in the corporate world—culminating with biotech giant Amgen in Southern California, where she worked in health outcomes—Sarah Ratliff and her husband bought an organic farm on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. Today…

Hemp has nearly unlimited potential. The surface of that potential has only been scratched, meaning much more remains to be discovered about the possible uses of this hardy and versatile substance.

Few doubt the arrival of federal legalization will be a boon to the hemp industry. Past restrictions that prevented its expansion will gradually melt away, given the immense profits available for those who jump in at the early stages.

In this new environment, the imaginations of scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs will now be fully unleashed, leading to a cascade of innovations and surprising turns. Advanced technology in hemp will broaden product lines, increase efficiency, and boost production levels, and that should be enough to ensure ample funding for research and development in the years to come.

In fact, technological innovation in hemp is already making an impact on several material categories. Could various hemp technologies help get the United States back on track?  

Plastics

The production of plastic from petrochemicals is helping fuel humanity’s overreliance on fossil fuels and disastrous flirtation with climatological disaster. Meanwhile, plastic pollution is overwhelming landfills and represents a significant threat to the world’s oceans.

Fortunately, biodegradable plastics made from hemp and other sources of raw cellulose offer a viable alternative to petroleum-based products. For example, an Australian company called Zeo has created a sturdy yet pliable, hemp-based plastic called Zeoform. This product can be sprayed, molded, or formed into any shape, making it appropriate for use in a variety of consumer goods. But it is dense and strong enough to replace plastics, wood, or composite materials in manufacturing and construction as well. Zeoform contains no glues or chemical additives, making it cleaner and safer than conventional plastics.

Construction

Hemp’s inherent durability and raw fiber toughness make it ideal for use as a building material. Hempcrete, for example, is stronger than regular concrete, but only 15 percent as heavy. Acting as natural insulators, hempcrete blocks can cut energy consumption dramatically, while showing extreme resistance to cracking or moisture penetration. Hempcrete has been around for a while but is only now coming into widespread use as a building material.

Offering the ultimate in versatility, hemp can be used as a replacement for wood just as easily as it can be substituted for concrete. A company called Fibonacci LLC has developed a construction material it calls HempWood, which is 20 percent denser than oak despite being made from a fast-growing crop that can be harvested twice annually in some locations.

Batteries and Supercapacitors

Despite its organic nature, hemp derivatives can be engineered to function as storage materials for use in batteries and supercapacitors.

This discovery was the result of pioneering work by Dr. David Mitlin, an engineering professor from Clarkson University. He developed a method for cooking and dissolving hemp fiber into carbon nanosheets that recreate the structure of graphene, a material commonly used in energy-storing systems. Hemp-based carbon nanosheets are significantly less expensive to manufacture than graphene, providing significant cost advantages that should allow hemp producers to make major inroads in the battery and supercapacitor industries.

Automobiles

Showing tremendous promise as a fuel source, hemp can be used to manufacture biodiesel, methanol, and ethanol. These fuels could power any moving vehicle, including cars that have themselves been constructed from hemp-based materials.

Hemp cars may sound like a pipe dream, but the first hemp car was built decades ago. Way back in 1941, Henry Ford commissioned the construction of a vehicle with a body made largely from hemp, and in 2017 an automobile designer named Bruce Dietzen duplicated this feat. The lightweight, damage-resistant exterior of Dietzen’s 2017 Renew sports car was constructed from approximately 100 pounds of hemp-based plastic.

Renew Sports Cars now builds customized hemp-bodied vehicles for sale to the public. Seizing a golden opportunity, Dietzen and his associates have gotten in on the ground floor of what may be the next revolution in the automobile industry.

One African company is even looking to hemp vehicles to revolutionize the rideshare industry as well.

Hemp as the Perfect Template for Innovation

The number of consumer products already made from hemp is genuinely mind-boggling. The list includes personal care products like shampoo and sunscreen, virtually all types of clothing, shoes, jewelry, soaps, and detergents, fuels, glasses, pens, candles, draperies, animal toys—the list goes on and on, and will only get longer as the hemp industry gains a foothold coast to coast.

Now that it has finally arrived, hemp is here to stay. Most Americans remain unaware of its utility, but that situation will undoubtedly change soon as more and more innovators discover new ways to exploit the fantastic qualities of this infinitely versatile product.

What has happened so far is just the tip of the iceberg. Technological innovation will be necessary to gain an edge in a highly competitive marketplace, and that competition will inevitably take the hemp industry in some exciting and unpredictable directions.

With the recent pandemic and complete shutdown of a global economy, hemp may be the salvation in retooling America for greener, more sustainable domestic manufacturing.

 

Comments

Join our community of 10,000+ users by subscribing to our Weekly Newsletter!