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The future of the hemp industry is technological innovation. This is an industry that is already growing rapidly despite the fact that formal federal and state rules aren’t in place yet. As the hemp industry grows, more advanced technology will be required to boost production and cost efficiencies in order to meet consumer demand and keep product prices affordable.
Fortunately, there are companies across the world that are already researching and launching technology to not only help hemp growers and manufacturers but also to expand the ways hemp can be used in daily life, thereby increasing business opportunities throughout the industry.
At a recent summit held at HempToday’s International Center of Excellence in Poland, Hemp Machines & Technology, attendees learned about innovative hemp technology for multi-cropping, harvesting, industrial scale decortication, micro-decortication, industrial scale CO2 extraction technology, solar-powered processing, building integrated energy storage capacity from hemp plant materials, and more.
Here are 10 innovative technologies that are changing the hemp industry and the larger world:
Within the hemp industry, technology is having a significant impact on cultivation and manufacturing. From artificial intelligence used to grow hemp and new machinery used to harvest it, innovative technology is helping farmers and processors boost production and lower costs.
For example, Canadian Greenfield Technologies Corp. developed machinery for hemp manufacturing that processes raw hemp and separates it into hemp fibers, leaves, and hurds, which are then used to manufacture a wide variety of hemp products for commercial sale.
Another example is PureHemp Technology, which patented its Continuous Countercurrent Reactor (CCR) technology to convert raw hemp into pulp, lignin, sugars, flowers, and seed oil. These components can then be used to manufacture finished hemp-based products. When PureHemp Technology began operations, it could process 1,200 pounds of dry, raw hemp per day. Thanks to its technological innovations, the company can now process four tons per day and expects to process more than 40 tons per day by 2021.
In 2019, Hemp Harvest Innovations launched proprietary technology that makes cannabinoid extraction faster, less expensive, and safer than traditional extraction methods. Also in 2019, Canopy Rivers made a $10 million investment in ZeaKal, which will bring ZeaKal’s proprietary plant genetics technology, PhotoSeed, to the cannabis and hemp industries. As a result, Canopy Rivers expects to increase crop yields and oil production, gain additional grow cycles, and improve its cannabinoid output.
Did you know that hemp can be used as a raw material for biofuels as cellulosic ethanol?
Unlike corn-based ethanol, which researchers have found to be nearly as bad for the environment as fossil fuels, cellulosic ethanol is a lot closer to carbon-neutral, meaning it has a carbon footprint of closer to zero than corn-based ethanol. In addition, as a biofuel, hemp is more sustainable than fossil fuels and could be used for electricity and to power cars.
Companies are taking notice of hemp’s potential as a biofuel. In 2014, Extreme Biodiesel received a $5 million line of credit to grow hemp. The company also operates a mobile hemp biodiesel unit through its subsidiary, XTRM Cannabis Ventures, which can move to different sites as needed.
Hemp can be used to make all kinds of plastics, which are just as durable and lightweight as traditional plastic but the hemp material is far more environmentally friendly. Plastic made from hemp can be used just like traditional plastic. It can be molded and 3D printed, and it’s biodegradable.
Zeoform is a material that uses industrial hemp along with other recycled fibers to make a type of plastic that is 100% recyclable. Zeoform can be molded as needed to replace traditional plastic, wood, or composite material.
Another example is Sana Packaging, which makes sustainable packaging for the cannabis industry using 100% plant-based hemp plastic and other sustainable materials.
It takes 20-80 years for each tree cut down to make paper to be replaced with a new tree that has grown to maturity. It only takes hemp stalks four months to grow. The world produces around 400 million tons of paper every year, and it takes an average of 17 trees to produce one ton of paper (the number varies from 12 for newsprint to 24 for white office paper). That means six billion, eight hundred million trees are cut down to produce paper every year.
Unlike trees, hemp grows quickly and is easily replanted. Over a 20 year period, one acre of hemp can produce as much paper as four to 10 acres of trees. Companies like TreeFreeHemp (part of the Colorado Hemp Company) in Colorado and Green Field Paper Company of California sell paper made from hemp using as many locally-sourced materials as possible.
In 2014, engineering professor David Mitlin of Clarkson University learned how to turn hemp fibers into carbon nanosheets, which could be used as electrodes for supercapacitors. The nanosheets resemble the structure of graphene, a semi-metal commonly used to make nanosheets and the strongest metal ever tested.
Mitlin’s carbon nanosheets actually store energy better than graphene and can be used for supercapacitors and batteries. While traditional graphene costs $2,000 per gram, the graphene-like hemp costs only $500 per ton. Ultimately, these nanosheets could be used to power houses, cars, and more.
Technological innovations have brought us building materials manufactured with hemp. For example, hempcrete is a type of concrete made with hemp and lime. It’s carbon negative and stronger than traditional concrete but just one-seventh the weight. It’s also resistant to cracks, fire, mold, and termites and offers highly efficient insulation which can reduce energy costs by up to 70% annually.
While hempcrete has been in use since the 1960s, it’s only just gaining popularity in the United States. Companies like Tiny Hemp Houses in Colorado are already gaining traction helping people build all-natural homes from hempcrete.
In addition to concrete alternatives, hemp is being used to make wood alternatives. Fibonacci, LLC’s HempWood is made with a patented technology and is 20% denser than oak. It takes just four to six months to grow and harvest a hemp crop compared to 60 years for an oak tree to mature, which makes HempWood a more ecologically- and economically-friendly option.
Hemp is also being used to make insulation by companies like Sunstrand and wood finish and deck stain sealers by companies like Hemp Shield. Unlike many other types of wood finish and deck stain sealers, Hemp Shield does not include hazardous air pollutants or toxic chemicals like formaldehyde.
Technology is also being used to process hemp into materials that can be used to make furniture. The patented Zeoform can be used for plastics as discussed in #3 above, and it can be used to make furniture like tables and chairs. Zeoform can be molded and coated in a variety of finishes making it an excellent replacement for wood.
Even designers are getting involved in taking hemp technology to the next level. Furniture designer Werner Aisslinger partnered with BASF Acrodur (a division of BASF) to design and manufacture a hemp chair using BASF Acrodur’s ecotechnology.
Did you know hemp needs 50% less water than cotton does in order to produce a yield 200-250% more than cotton?
Hemp can be used not just to make fabric but to make bacteria-fighting fabric. Scientists in China developed a blend of hemp fibers in the 1990s with a high resistance to staph bacteria. Since staph infections are so common and can be deadly for some patients, this type of technological innovation is extremely important to the healthcare industry.
Colorado’s EnviroTextiles manufactures a hemp-rayon fabric blend that research studies have found to be 98.5% staph resistant. The fabric is also 61.5% pneumonia-free. But that’s not all! It’s also resistant to UV and infrared wavelengths.
For years, scientists have been researching ways to develop materials from hemp that can replace both the plastic and metal components of cars. They’ve discovered that hemp fibers, which have a higher strength to weight ratio than steel and are significantly less expensive, are the solution.
Hemp-based materials are also biodegradable, and they typically weigh 30% less than materials currently used in car manufacturing. That means cars made with hemp-based materials will see a sizeable increase in fuel efficiency compared to cars made with plastics and metals. Considering that hemp fibers are less expensive to manufacture than metals and plastics, it’s not surprising that companies like Diamler/Chrysler, BMW, and Audi Volkswagen are already using hemp materials in their cars.
However, it’s not just the big car companies that are using hemp. After entrepreneur Bruce Michael Dietzen built his own hemp car (like Henry Ford did in 1941), he started a company, Renew Sports Cars, which builds custom hemp bodied sports cars.
Hemp technology can be found in a wide variety of household goods. Aside from foods and essential oils, consumers can also find hemp water filters, glasses, pens, and more. In fact, a quick Google search reveals far more products than you probably thought could be made from hemp. Here are some of those hemp products:
The list goes on and on, and as more innovative technologies continue to disrupt the hemp industry, we can assume this list will keep getting longer.
Since industrial hemp has been illegal for so long in the United States, companies haven’t been able to research and develop technologies that cultivators, manufacturers, and consumers need. In many instances, technology is simply not available.
For example, law enforcement needs technology that can detect legal hemp and differentiate it from cannabis. Without adequate technology, not only are new process and product innovations limited, but prices to consumers remain higher than they could be. Fibonacci’s efforts to make the price of HempWood comparable to oak by 2020 is a perfect example.
Despite the delays and barriers, companies continue to push boundaries to develop new technologies that will drive the hemp industry forward. With goals to expand uses of hemp, develop new methods for hemp cultivation and processing, and launch new hemp products – and doing so faster, cheaper, and with higher quality – it’s certain we’ll see many innovative hemp technologies debut in the future.
Originally published 4/19/19. Updated 9/27/19.