Hemp isn’t just for hackin’ the sack at Phish shows or making rope. This amazing plant, a non-psychoactive variety of cannabis grown specifically for industrial purposes, has a vast number of applications for a greener planet. Cultivated hemp grows quickly in a wide variety of climates and does not degrade the soil in which it is grown. Tune in, turn on, and read this feature to learn the latest developments in the magical (yet still illegal in most countries) world of hemp.
Hemp can processed into a durable material that was once used by Henry Ford to construct a car that was lighter, less expensive and consumed less power than traditional metal cars. These principles have also been applied to housing throughout the world. In the United Kingdom, farmer Nick Voase turned his own grown hemp into an amazing eco-house, held together by lime, that is cool in summer, warm in winter, and even features a walk-in fridge made out of hemp. In South Africa, hemp advocate Tony Budden is working hard to demonstrate the value of the wonder plant; he and his partner built the country’s first hemp home. Northern Ireland’s Bevan Architects used hemp to construct a simple low-impact cottage on a riverside apple orchard for an environmentally friendly retreat from urban living. Lastly, in Australia, Mihaus Studio built a prefabricated hemp-based modular space that can be adapted for a wide variety of purposes.
Traditional plastic is derived from non-renewable resources and is non-biodegradable, which means that disposed plastic usually ends up in ever expanding landfills. Enter our hero, hemp, a renewable resource which can be used to produce biodegradable plastic. A shift to the greener hemp would not require a sacrifice of quality. Hemp plastic may be up to 5 times stiffer and 2.5 stronger than traditional plastic made from polypropylene and unlike glass fibers, hemp plastic would not pose safety and health risks. Designers, such as Studio Aisslinger, have incorporated this fine bioplastic into its products, such as the chair shown above.
Hemp isn’t only for humans. Dogs, cats, and other furry, feathered, or scaly friends can also benefit from the plant. Honest Pet Products has created a line of pet toys made from sustainable hemp and organic wool. The method by which these toys are produced is also beneficial for the environment and community. The toys are manufactured by adults with developmental disabilities in Wisconsin and women living in the Gobi Desert and Nepal, who simultaneously support their family with their work and vow to protect the local snow leopards as a condition for their employment.
Graphene has received a great deal of attention for its superstrength and its astounding ability as a superconductor of electricity. Lost in this storm is the fact that hemp may be able to replicate graphene’s function as a supercapacitor, a revolutionary energy storage device, at a radically lower cost. David Mitlin of Clarkson University, New York discovered hemp’s superconductive properties by “cooking” plant material in a process. “Once you dissolve the lignin and the semicellulose, it leaves these carbon nanosheets – a pseudo-graphene structure,” said Mitlin. These nanosheets are then fabricated into electrodes, infused with an ionic liquid as an electrolyte, and function as supercapacitors that work in a wide range of temperatures and conditions. Mitlin founded a small company, Alta Supercaps, with the goal of producing hemp-based supercapacitors on a small scale.
Not only is hemp a durable material for housing structure, it also is an excellent insulator. In Belgium, Martens Van Caimere Architecten renovated a local home with a sustainable hemp-based insulation material known as hempcrete. Hempcrete is a mixture of lime, hemp, and water that is superior to concrete in its sustainability and cost while also offering better insulation. “In our projects we try finding solutions to lower the building costs,” said architect Nikolaas Martens. “In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Belgians were building houses that were badly or not insulated. So renovating these houses in a sustainable way tends to be expensive. Hempcrete combines the insulation and finishing in one layer, reducing building costs. Plus it is durable and sustainable, because it is made from a waste product.”
Fly high in the sky with hemp! In 2014, Canada-based Hempearth contracted with a Florida-based plane manufacturer to build an airplane almost entirely out of hemp material. The plane will seat four people and have a wingspan of 36 feet. Approximately 75 percent of the plane will be constructed of industrial hemp. Originally scheduled for its first flight (appropriately out of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina) in 2015, the plane has yet to fly. Hempearth is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for their project.
Not satisfied with simply being made from hemp, the designers at Hempearth also plan for their plane to be powered entirely by hemp-based biofuel. While hemp biodiesel has great potential, there are currently legal and economic barriers to widespread adoption. “That particularly, is very much an issue of economies of scale,” said Arthur Hanks, executive director of the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance. “We are still very much a specialty crop.” The limited production of hemp is primarily geared towards the health food market, in which hemp provides the greatest return to farmers. “Every pound that’s being produced goes into the food chain,” Paul Bobbee, a Canadian hemp grower. While hemp production is legal in Canada, the continued haziness surrounding hemp policy in the United States suppresses the market. If hemp production were legalized nationwide, “it would help regularize hemp in America, and help to increase markets,” said Hanks.
Bring on the munchies. Hemp seeds can be eaten raw, sprouted, or ground up while the iconic hemp leaf can be thrown into a salad. Hemp seeds are high in protein and have a similar amino acid profile to meat, milk, and eggs. Often cold-pressed into oil form, hemp seeds are a rich source of Vitamin B, iron, dietary fiber, magnesium and zinc. Although illegal to produce in most American states, hemp can be imported as a food product. As of 2011, the U.S. imported $11.5 million worth of hemp products.