‘If you have an idea, it can probably be made from hemp’

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INTERVIEW: Carl Martel is an independent scientist who has been researching industrial cannabis for over a decade. Formally trained as a geo-archaeologist with degrees in interdisciplinary science, Martel’s areas of research include plant carbons for energy storage, green extraction solutions and harvest/processing innovations. Co-inventor of a Canadian developed grain disinfection system. he continues to explore and develop quality post-harvest management systems. Martel’s passion is developing processing solutions and products that encourage whole plant utilization including value added products from plant biomass and agricultural waste.  He is co-founder of the Advanced Botanical and Biomass Research Institute.

HT: You’ve developed one of the most extensive maps for the potential of cannabis we’ve ever seen. What’s still out there on the frontier?

CM: If you have an idea, it can probably be made from industrial hemp. The sky’s the limit, so to speak. I have heard they have taken cannabis seeds up to the space station. 

HT: What’s still needed along the value chain to fulfill the rich possibilities for whole plant production?

CM: Innovation, research and development. We are not lacking consumer demand for products, and farmers want to grow industrial hemp. We need to focus on the development and processing of useful consumer products that incorporate hemp and its many benefits. Food and fiber prices need to reach a point where they can be competitive with other commodity crops such as timber. Through innovation we will find ways to become more competitive.

HT: You often use the statement “understand nature, then copy it.” What does  that really mean?

CM: I am glad that you picked upon that. It’s the fundamental principle I have built into my ethics and apply to my scientific methodology. For me it means observing how nature comes up with a solution. Take for example the retting process of hemp in nature. After the plant is cut down, it lays on the ground, then nature slowly begins to break the plant back down to its component parts through microbiological processes. When the process is stopped at the right time, the bast fibers can be removed and turned into woven materials, rope, etc. This process, once observed and understood, has been taken to a lab and developed into a controlled method to produce a myriad fibers to be processed into the things we use every day. 

HT: How does nature store energy?

CM: When I look at a tree, a plant or other carbon-based entity, I see a battery. Nature weaves a tapestry of carbon structures from algae to trees that store energy. Take for example an enzyme that researchers at Concordia have found, or trees that generate power?

The idea of using carbon to store energy is not new, nor is it new that we can get energy from carbon. Now, we know that carbons can be used to store energy; your common household battery or supercapacitors, as an example, have carbons inside them. Fire is energy, a tree can be felled, piled and dried, then a match is struck to light the pile and the energy is released. 

So what I and others are looking at is instead of burning that wood pile (or hemp, sugarcane, etc.) we create stable carbons and turn them into electrodes to store energy. This can be from any electricity generating source: solar, wind, hydro, etc. 

Another way to think of this is that a tree is like a little factory. The leaves are the solar panel (energy generation) and the wood is the battery (energy storage) and where the tree gets its carbon is from the atmosphere in the form of CO2. The tree holds onto the C to build the tree and releases O2. It’s mimicking nature’s processes that allow us to be able to build plant carbon batteries. 

HT: How far out there are we getting?

CM: For generations Star Trek has offered inspiration for our own innovations. They take from the present and project to the future the possibilities where human potential can take us when we observe and understand the universe around us. Now that we know plants are batteries, perhaps one day the idea in Star Trek may become reality. Discovery of a mycelial network to travel across the galaxy may not be that far fetched.

HT: What would you say is the status of cannabis science right now? Are there other explorers out there with you?

CM: The status of our knowledge in this field is growing in leaps and bounds. As we begin to apply modern science in the study of this plant, researchers are not only finding information in labs but in old texts, herbal medicine reference guides and sometimes even old farmhouses. As global restrictions and stigma lift, the science will continue to grow. Universities are more accepting of, and able to take on cannabis projects unlike in the past 60 years. 

HT: You’ve said plant based carbons via carbonization will play a vital role in future electrochemical technologies.

CM: Yes, the carbons we use currently are mined from the ground and therefore a finite resource with polluting conditions associated with it, while plant based carbons can be grown from the ground and created from existing agricultural waste. 

HT: You also talk about CBD as a fuel. What’s that all about?  

CM: Under alkaline conditions and in the presence of air, cannabidiol is oxidized to a quinone. Experiments have demonstrated the use of quinones in alkaline quinone flow batteries for renewable energy storage.

HT: What were your hobbies when you were a kid?

CM: I loved to draw and build models. I was very artistic. I have fond memories of playing in the backwoods of Ontario, hiking, exploring and discovering nature.

HT: You’ve been known to eat paint based on hemp oil and natural pigments. What does hemp paint taste like?

CM: Lol … I guess it depends on how old the oil is. My paints are made from expired food grade hemp oil. Sometimes they still have the nutty taste, but once oxidized it takes on an acidic sour taste. 

A world in one plant

From rope to fertilizer, batteries to protein bars, hemp has long been touted for its potential in a multitude of products. The Advanced Botanical & Biomass Research Institute (ABBRI), under founders Carl Martel and Erin Lindley, have developed what is arguably the most extensive breakdown of the hemp plant into raw, semi-processed and finished materials to date.

About ABBRI: The Advanced Botanical and Biomass Research Institute (ABBRI) is a research and innovation firm dedicated to developing sustainable, environmentally-friendly products from the industrial hemp plant and other agricultural waste streams in order to foster the growth of these industrial sectors.

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