Bast fibers are extracted from plants through a process called “retting.” Microbes decompose lignin and hemicelluloses to pull apart chemical bonds holding the stem together.
Aside from hemp, bast fibers are also found in jute, flax, ramie, and kenaf. For a good part of human history, hemp bast fibers had several applications, but with the criminalisation of Cannabis use, these were abandoned. Recently, scientific investigation and new laws regarding Cannabis have helped people differentiate the psychoactive variant – marijuana -from hemp.
Due to these advances, among a few other factors, Hemp is now experiencing a commercial revival. It is becoming the New Normal. Today, we’re looking to shed light on the diverse range of uses for hemp bast fibres in 2020.
Hemp may be refined into fabric for clothing, rope, canvas, and several other fibre-based textiles. Though it is not yet as soft as cotton, it is more durable and almost 2 x more absorbent. It also possesses a natural resistance to mold, mildew, and ultraviolet rays. In fact, during the First World War, farmers were motivated to grow hemp because of its cost-effectiveness and numerous textile applications in a campaign called ‘Hemp For Victory’
The first Levi trousers were made from hemp, and became a go-to clothing for miners due to the observed physical qualities. Hemp fibers can be combined with other natural and synthetic materials to produce fabric blends. Modern applications have seen various retailers selling hemp and hemp blended outfits ranging from t-shirts to table linens and upholstery.
One of the most interesting hemp fabric blends that we’ve seen come through this year is Hemp Black’s Recycled polyester and Hemp blend, which takes 11 plastic bottles out of the environment for each piece of clothing.
The graphene we are familiar with is made of two-dimensional, hexagonal lattices of packed carbon molecules. It is described as one of the most conductive, light, and strong compounds to be discovered. Graphene is mainly used in areas concerned with energy storage. Unfortunately, the only way to source this highly-sought after commercial material is through mining, which is often very heavy on the environment.
In recent years, a scientist named Dr. David Mitlin from Clarkson University, New York, proposed a method with which graphene can be derived from hemp waste. This so-called hemp graphene is proving to be even better than the traditional variety. Bast fibers were dissolved by Miltin’s team of researchers and then cooked until nanosheets of carbon similar to what is seen with graphene were left.
Manufacturing hemp graphene is much cheaper than regular graphene. It costs only about $500 per tonne while a single gram of regular graphene is produced at $2000. To put that into perspective, one tonne is the equivalent of 907,185 grams. This cheaper, less impactful material could then be used, for example, to scale the production of electric cars sustainably, as they require supercapacitors for regenerative braking. Applications may also extend to other new technologies like rapid phone charging, wireless devices, and for use in solar panels.
Hemp paper is a great alternative to paper derived from trees. Hemp bast fibers could easily be a renewable source to satisfy our paper-huntry planet. The plant is a more than suitable option for paper-making since it contains higher cellulose than lignin when compared to wood. It was used for making the first paper in China and replaced writing materials that were made from clay or stone.
An acre of hemp can produce the same quantity of paper as 4-10 acres of trees, and in three months instead of ~20 years. Besides this eco-friendly advantage, hemp paper lasts much longer as it does not yellow or crack like wood paper.
It’s a no-brainer!
One modern use of hemp bast fibers is as a raw material for biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol. Unlike most methods of generating biofuels, a plant’s cellulose is processed instead of oil or sugar. And this is nothing new – the automotive industry has already looked into using hemp. In fact, the 1983 Mercedes-Benz 300TD demonstrated that a car can run on pure hemp oil.
Its viability as a biofuels source is even more pronounced because of its easy growth in infertile soils. This means the need to grow it on primary cropland is reduced, and food can be produced instead, defeating the food vs. fuel problem that comes up when dealing with other sustainable fuel sources like sugarcane.
It seems like the right decision to jump on the hemp train, given its ease to produce and sustainable nature. However, its association with marijuana means hemp is still kind of dealing with a bad reputation.
Fortunately, we are seeing innovation in the industry regardless. And we can’t wait to watch people explore the capacities of this incredible plant further, and uncover even more useful applications.