By Robert Ziner | CIHC, Canada
Hemp has always been a better natural resource than trees. The truth is, because hemp was not legal throughout most of the world for the last 80 years, it was never given a chance to compete on an equal footing with wood, or any other natural fibers.
Coming from a 30-year background in lumber processing and optimization, I became hooked on hemp when I learned that the stalk’s bast fiber is 10 times stronger than the fiber in Douglas Fir, the most revered softwood fiber for structural framing in the North American construction industry. Finding a proprietary automated solution enabling CIHC to become a low cost, high-value hemp fiber processor, immediately made a lot of sense to me.
In terms of quality and performance, hemp fiber stands out as probably the strongest and most durable fiber in nature. In addition to being 10 times stronger than wood fiber, hemp is four times stronger than cotton.
Industrial hemp is lighter and less expensive to process than wood. One acre of hemp planted for 40 years has 400% more usable fiber than one acre of trees through their 40-year lifecycle. Hemp is the most efficient biomass source in the world. In less than 91 days, the plant can generate stalk to the stage where its fibers have contained their full CO2 content and are ready to be properly processed.
More and more scientific publications underscore hemp’s other important characteristics: high absorption properties, IR and UV radiation protection capacity and natural low flammability. Further new, promising tests also indicate natural anti-bacterial properties of hemp fibers, believed to result from the alkaloids, cannabinoids and other bioactive or phenolic compounds.
Hemp also represents an alluring investment opportunity for those companies looking for an effective way to “decarbonize” their goods – in other words, decreasing their carbon emissions profile. Because of the strong carbon storage capability based on its high biomass content, and the low levels of water it needs, hemp is probably the most sustainable fiber of all.
Hemp plants have an exceptionally high capacity to draw out and contain CO2, which is much higher than trees. According to several scientific articles, one acre of a common hemp varietal can absorb 8.88 tons of CO2 annually, whereas an acre of forest sequesters roughly 2.5 tons – only about 30% as much.
But wait, there’s more. Our research has shown that, hemp varietals being grown for fiber generally yield up to five times the biomass of leftover “seed” stalk – up to 42 tons – and that the CO2 displacement when hemp is substituted for traditional raw materials, in end products such as plastic, textiles, steel, construction and other materials, can reduce CO2 by as much as 200 tons!
Although plant life produces oxygen in the atmosphere through photosynthesis, this natural process decreases as plants age. It would seem logical that big trees with considerable leaf area would generate more oxygen, especially because they are alive much longer than a hemp plant, however this is untrue. While there is actually a decline in the capacity of older and larger trees to produce oxygen, hemp, on the other hand, is a fast-growing, large plant which is harvested at only 12 weeks. Well before it can be “aged,” the plant is pumping oxygen full throttle. This is ideal for shared crop agronomy.
Considering that less than 5% of the United States’ virgin forest remains, it only makes sense to plan for the future and protect what is left of this once naturally balanced resource by growing hemp. We can help to regain that balance by planting, harvesting and processing hemp into the many cellulosic applications for which trees have been predominantly used since wood-based paper replaced paper made from hemp in the 1930s across North America.
Cellulose is the main chemical that adds strength to paper and other composite products such as chipboard and particleboard. With a concentration of 72%, hemp bast has a higher concentration of cellulose than wood, which provides only 42%. Essentially, the more cellulose a plant contains, the fewer chemicals are needed to make paper. Hemp bast has the highest cellulose content of all plants.
Not only does hemp grow at a much faster rate than trees, but its high cellulose content allows for a faster, lower conversion cost and doesn’t require the significant quantities of toxic chemicals required for wood processing.
Making paper from wood requires polluting agents such as sulphuric acid, bleach and chlorine to remove its non-cellulose fiber mass during the pulping process. Hemp fibers, on the other hand, can be whitened using hydrogen peroxide, which doesn’t chemically damage water. In addition, compared to its wood pulp counterpart, paper made from hemp fibers resists decomposition and does not yellow or brown with age.
Hemp fiber can play a pivotal role in commerce and economic development. But the most important thing governments need to understand is hemp’s potential for healing the planet and advancing human health. As hemp fiber gains momentum it’s not a question of phasing out other fibers and completely replacing them with hemp. The interesting feature of the “hemp business model” is that the synergies with existing industrial capacities are virtually unlimited.
Unlimited. As usual, with hemp!
Robert Ziner is Founder & CEO, Canadian Industrial Hemp Corp. (CIHC), Toronto, which is developing an advanced hemp stalk processing and optimization system. Ziner has more than 30 years in the building materials distribution and secondary wood processing industries.