Hemp: A Timely Revolution?
In 1937, “Popular Science” published an article entitled: “Hemp, the New Billion Dollar Crop” and listed over 25,000 uses for this miracle plant. Recently a web site on the subject cited that there were so far 50,000 uses! Yet, despite a growing resurgence of interest during the past 30 years in the industrial, culinary and medicinal uses of hemp, it is still is not getting the attention it rightly deserves. Why might that be so?
The outbreak of WW2 was definitely a factor. Demands for wartime supplies over-ran the demand for hemp products and wartime pressures suppressed what may have otherwise resulted in a hemp revolution at that time. Post war demand fell away and concerns about the narcotic effects of cannabis resulted in widespread legislation banning the cultivation of hemp in many countries including the USA, where hemp is still classed a a class-A narcotic. This paved the way for the synthetics boom as competitors in the marketplace encouraged people to rely on products made of synthetic materials less durable than hemp, therefore requiring us to keep consuming them at what has proved to be great cost to our planet and general well-being. But, happily, a turn around might well be underway. Very recently, Hemp has been legally grown in the U.S.A. albeit for experimental purposes in controlled farms and research centres in its territories. Ironically hemp products have always been popular and freely available in the USA. According to the “Hemp Industry Association” there are approximately $500 million worth of hemp products imported into the U.S. every year and the figure is growing, making the U.S. the biggest consumer of hemp on the planet. Thus, the hemp cultivation has been on the increase in countries without such tight restrictions to supply the increasing global demand. A few countries, among them Israel and Canada, have also recently started to regulate cannabis as a medicine but subject to stricter rules than hemp. As new, more liberal legislation with regard to hemp growing spreads throughout the world, new opportunities to explore the many potential uses of hemp is also growing. As more countries start to see the benefits of this incredibly eco-friendly crop a great diversity of new uses for the plant are being developed behind the scenes. The possibilities seem to be endless.
But firstly, what is the big deal about hemp and how is it unique?
Hemp has been called one of the purest, most complete plants on Earth. Evidence suggests that it was one of the earliest plants to be cultivated for human use. It is also one of the fastest growing. Hemp plants reach heights of between 15 and 20 feet and require little fertilizer, no pesticides or herbicides and can be grown practically anywhere in the world. From seed hemp can grow 4 metres in just 14 weeks. Its long tap root draws nutrients from deeper down in the soil allowing for the growth of subsequent crops which consume nutrients nearer the surface. As such it is an extraordinarily eco-friendly, sustainable crop with more uses than can be listed here, but I have selected a few game changing hemp products which will be described later in this article:
Is hemp different from cannabis and if so, how exactly?
Actually, hemp and cannabis are the same plant. The issue lies in a cannabinoid known as Tetrahydracannabinol or “THC” which is credited to be the cannabinoid that produces the “high” or narcotic effect of cannabis. Hemp which is grown for use in industry and as a food has negligible quantities of THC. THC is found in the buds and flowers of female cannabis plants. Over periods of time, cannabis plants have been bred for low amounts of THC (for culinary and industrial purposes), and high amounts, such as for the narcotics industry. Another important cannabinoid found in hemp is CBD (Cannabidiol”) which is used widely in natural medicine and as a health supplement. CBD is not considered to have psychoactive properties and taking it even in large quantities and at high strengths cannot make a person “high”. The best quality CBD is found in the buds and flowers but it is also present in the stems, stalks and leaves of the hemp. Interestingly, CBD acts to reduce the psychoactive effects of THC. The properties of THC and CBD as well as a host of other interesting terpines combined in hemp will be discussed in a following article.
Hemp as a food
Hemp seeds have many nutritional properties. They can be eaten raw and regularly added to cereals or granola. For maximum nutritional value they can be sprouted and eaten with salads. Hemp leaves can also be eaten. Hempseed can be ground into baking flour or added to smoothies or made into a milk-like product for drinking. Hemp seeds have a perfect balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids for absorption in the body as well as other important vitamins and minerals including the B group and iron. Hemp powder is an excellent complete protein which contains all the essential amino acids required by the human body.
People have been making textiles with hemp for thousands of years. Perhaps the oldest hemp cultivation was in China. This resulted in hemp garments of an unsurpassed softness and quality. The hemp fibres are from the stalks of the plant and are as long as the plant itself giving added strength and durability. But perhaps one of the most surprising and unique properties of hemp has given us the possibility of antibacterial textiles. Various chemicals found in hemp have been shown to possess antibacterial and anti-fungal properties. A Colorado company is currently developing hemp textiles to fight the spread of staph infections in hospitals by replacing the cotton and polyester in current usage which can harbour bacteria for months. The company “Envirotextiles” fabric is still under development but is showing promise in early lab tests.
Graphene is the thinnest, strongest, lightest material ever made and as such, it is touted as the future of nanotechnology, However, a hemp version of Graphene may be even better! Chemical engineers from the University of Alberta turned hemp fibre into a nanomaterial similar to Graphene but much cheaper to produce. What is more, it demonstrated superior electrochemical storage properties compared to Graphene. Research is still in its early stages but if tests hold, hemp could eventually be used for a wide range of nanotech applications from flashlights to solar cells.
Biocomposite and “Zeoform”
A biocomposite made with hemp fibre is just as strong as fibreglass but incredibly lightweight. Currently this biocomposite is used in many cars made by Audi, Ford, Chrysler, BMW GM, Mercedes, Lotus and Honda among many others. An electric car, BMW 13, is able to shed 10% of weight from its door panels by using hemp composite instead of traditional materials.
An Australian company has made plastic from hemp, avoiding the use of fossil fuels or toxic chemicals. The product which has been named “Zeoform” is made from a mixture of plant fibre (cellulose) and water and is compostable. Hemp, flax and straw are ideal because of their high cellulose content but it can be made of waste paper and textiles too. Zeoform is highly durable with the texture of hardwood and is also easily biodegradable as it relies on a natural process of hydrogen bonding that occurs when cellulose is exposed to water. The bond created is so strong that it requires no glue and can be moulded into any shape. Zeoform can be sprayed or moulded to create practically anything, for example, jewellery, lamps, autoprints, furniture and musical instruments. At present, the factory is small but the company’s CEO, Alf Wheeler, hopes to licence patented technology to larger manufacturers. They are currently engaged in raising funds to build a large waste paper recycling centre in Dubai from which they aim to produce Zeoform. As I understand it, they are aiming to have Zeoform available on the market for the general public sometime in 2017.
Supercapacitators, hemp MDF and wood preserver
Recently, researchers at the University of Alberta created a supercapacitor using raw hemp material making the manufacture of cheap, fast charging batteries from hemp a real possibility.
In 2011, Larry Serbin, owner of “Hemp Traders” announced the world’s first formaldehyde free non toxic hemp as an alternative to MDF. It does not warp and is great for use in bathrooms, as furniture, shelving, flooring and moulding. Hempshield offers the first 100% hemp oil based deck finish for wood based products. It outlasts most petroleum based products and contains no harmful chemicals and is pest, mildew and algae resistant.
“We should be able to to live in an environment that is non toxic; one that helps clean rather than contaminate the air, the Earth, and our bodies” So said designer/builder Anthony Brenner who built the first hemp house in the USA in 2010. The result of his project is a house with a breathable wall system creating healthier air quality with a more stable temperature and humidity. Smaller hempcrete homes have been built in Europe during the last 20 years and have been especially popular in France.
Although historically Europeans built houses using the traditional wattle and daub method, the use of hemp as a superior natural building material is only recently being explored. Builds using hempcrete are incredibly light on the environment, energy usage and overall costs as well as being less labour intensive and more comfortable and healthier to live in than buildings made of traditional or commonly used materials.
Hempcrete is made by mixing the inner woody core of the plant with a lime-based binder. The hemp core, or “shiv” has a high silica content, and this characteristic allows it to bind effectively to lime. As the hempcrete is not rigid it will not crack under movement and is three times more resistant to earthquakes than regular concrete. One of its uses is in the repair of old wattle and daub buildings as it lets the natural material and wooden timbers breathe. Thus old wooden timbers do not deteriorate as they do when covered with regular concrete and as hempcrete is not rigid and moves with the underlying material, the cracking that occurs when such buildings are restored with regular concrete is avoided. It is termite, pest, mould and mildew resistant due to the alkaline lime. It is non toxic and will not let off gaseous volatile organic compounds into indoor air. It has good acoustic properties and can be moulded and formed for precise openings for windows and doors allowing watertight sealing to be installed. It is an excellent insulator, no additional insulation is needed and it has extra hygroscopic properties (regulates humidity) and has the unique ability to capture airborne pollutants over time and absorbs carbon. Hempcrete can also be sprayed onto exterior walls. A six inch coating of hempcrete can dramatically improve insulation and reduce energy costs by up to 50%.
Adams Brewery in Southwold, Suffolk, UK built their beer warehouse with hempcrete. Thanks to its incredible insulating qualities the warehouse requires no heating or air-conditioning, maintaining a steady temperature of 55 degrees F, ideal for storing beer. Buildings are reckoned to be the largest source of greenhouse gases but by using hempcrete, Adams distribution saved over 500 tons of CO2.
The Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, Central Wales, is currently building a £6.2 million conference centre using hempcrete.
Hempcrete houses can reduce our carbon footprint and are capable of cutting our energy bills in half. Hempcrete can reduce our reliance on coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear energy.
Another amazing aspect of hempcrete is that it is recycleable. While the average modern house is expected to have a life span of 80 years before it ends up in a landfill site, hempcrete houses are estimated to last between 300 and 800 years after which they may be recycled back into the earth or used to build new hempcrete walls.
According to a United Nations report in 2007, between 3 to 6 million trees are cut down each year to make paper and as one U.S. Department of Agriculture report noted: “There appears to be little doubt that under the present system of forest use and consumption the present supply cannot withstand the demands placed upon it”. Despite the laws in place to ensure that some of the tree harvests are replanted, man cannot replicate a natural healthy forest. Yet quality paper as well as paper for mass consumption has been sustainably manufactured from fast growing hemp. Hemp has actually been made into paper for thousands of years. Moreover, paper made from hemp can be recycled many more times than paper made from wood pulp, thus manufacturing paper from hemp rather than wood pulp from trees is an obvious solution to deforestation.
It may be argued that the lifting of restrictions that currently limit hemp production will lead to uncontrolled production of plants grown for narcotic use, while arguments still rage over whether or not this situation would indeed prove damaging to society as a whole. Change is likely to take place slowly, yet hemp itself presents an immediate solution and a remedy for many of the ecological problems facing a world in crisis. Hemp can indeed have a significant part to play in feeding the world, clothing the world, building the world, driving the world, and so much more. All this without the toxic elements, strain on resources and the challenging waste disposal problems weighing on the people of today.