By Cameron Zimmer
Serious research into hemp’s industrial possibilities has often been
lost in the haze surrounding its infamous cousin, the marijuana
plant. Scientists at the University of Saskatchewan are doing their
part to ensure that hemp’s potential doesn’t go up in smoke.
Satya Panigrahi, the university’s Saskatchewan Agricultural and Food Research Chair in Bioprocess Engineering, is particularly high on hemp’s future as a viable industrial crop that can be used to create “green” products.
The engineer sees hemp as a great potential crop for the Canadian Prairies because it requires minimal input, such as fertilizers or herbicides, and yet can grow up to 4.5 m tall before it’s harvested. And unlike many other crops harvested only for their seeds, farmers can potentially harvest and sell hemp seeds for oil, and large hemp stalks for their fibre. “I’d really like to see farmers understand that hemp has huge potential to bring them revenue,” says Panigrahi.
To make his point, the engineer has spent the last four years investigating how hemp fibre can be mixed with other materials and molded into environmentally friendly products. He’s already used hemp and recycled materials to create a plastic replacement called “hempstic,” a fiberglass alternative to make auto-body parts, and shingles that combine hemp, flax and recycled rubber.
Panigrahi has generated the most buzz with what he calls Eco-Bricks, bio-composite building blocks made with 75 per cent hemp stalk fibre combined with flax and recycled plastic from milk jugs, juice cartons, and other containers collected at the Saskatchewan Association of Rehabilitation Centres (SARCAN) recycling outlets.
Using what is nicknamed the “shake-and-bake” process, the engineer and his team heat a blend of chopped hemp and flax with plastic until it melts. The bio-composite liquid is then poured into moulds that range from the size of a small brick to the dimensions of a large Cindercrete block.
The result is a stackable fire-resistant and mold-resistant construction material. The versatile bricks can be nailed and screwed, just like wood boards. Stucco can be applied to the bricks to form attractive exterior walls. And they have an insulation value of up to R-50, much higher than the R-10 to R23 insulation used in most homes.
To top it off, the bricks are expected to sell for 30 to 50 per cent less than comparable concrete blocks.
To ensure the promising brick doesn’t become an anecdote in the annals of pot culture, Panigrahi is pushing to bring the product to market. He has already finalized a deal for a private manufacturer to begin producing the bricks and other biocomposite products in 2009.
Once production is in motion, the bricks will be used to build model houses in the Craik Ecovillage, a sustainable-development community located between Regina and Saskatoon.
Though Panigrahi believes the bricks could benefit the environment by reducing the need to cut down trees to build residential homes, he still sees obstacles preventing hemp products from making their way into mainstream markets.
“One of the problems is that we don’t have much of a hemp-processing industry in Canada, particularly in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, which means that we have to depend on someone else to process hemp” says Panigrahi.
Ralph Ashmead, an economist with leading agribusiness firm Serecon Consulting, says technology gaps have prevented hemp processing from getting off the ground in the past, but the technology now exists to begin the establishment of a biorefinery for hemp products.
“This needs to be supported by government, led by industry, and endorse the research community,” says Ashmead.
The consultant believes that before Panigrahi’s goal of boosting hemp farming can be achieved, the hemp industry needs to work on developing a market for its products.
“It is all about effective market demand. If the market is there, there will be production by farmers,” says Ashmead.
Ron Kehrig, former Vice-President of Biofuels and Bioproducts at Ag-West Bio, a membership-based development organization for Saskatchewan’s bioeconomy, says researchers and the hemp industry must work together to create marketable products that meet safety standards and consumers’ expectations.
“The challenge is to meet today’s consumers’ standards for price and quality as well as leaving a green footprint,” says Kehrig. “If hemp is going to become a big industry, it has to become mainstream. We’re not going to advance sustainability if we only stay on the fringes of the market.”
Making hemp more commercially palatable may start with making it more appealing for farmers to grow as an industrial crop.
Hemp was considered a banned narcotic in Canada until Health Canada launched a program in 1998 that allowed hemp crops to be grown for commercial products. After the new program came into effect, farmers wanting to grow industrial hemp had to be licensed through a stringent process that involved undergoing criminal-record checks and providing global positioning system (GPS) coordinates for their crops.
The Health Canada regulations were employed because, beyond looking nearly identical to the illegal marijuana plant, hemp also contains small concentrations of Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical responsible for marijuana’s mind-altering effects. As it stands, industrial hemp plants must have less than 0.3 per cent THC to be considered legal, nonnarcotic plants.
Jonathan Page, an adjunct U of S biology professor and National Research Council Plant Biotechnology Institute research scientist, believes THC’s presence in hemp has hurt its reputation and potential as an industrial crop.
“In many ways one of the big issues or stumbling blocks around hemp is still the presence of low amounts of THC,” says Page.
The scientist and his research team are working on a way to remove THC from hemp altogether. If successful, strict regulations for hemp producers could become less of a necessity, providing more incentive for farmers to grow industrial hemp crops.
Using a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada (NSERC), Page and his team are building a resource full of genetic information about the formation of cannabinoids, a group of chemical compounds that include the THC compound found in both marijuana and hemp plants.
By understanding the biochemistry behind cannabinoids, Page says he may someday be able to produce a hemp variety that has no cannabinoids and zero THC content.
“Hopefully this basic research can be applied in a way that benefits the farmer. Reducing or completely removing cannabinoids in general from hemp may lead to a crop that is more industrially acceptable than the varieties we have today.”
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