Hemp, known the world over as a multipurpose and valuable crop, has had a comeback in the past two decades. In addition to more traditional uses, new innovative uses for hemp have come into the spotlight, but what are these?
Hemp, known the world over as a multipurpose crop, is a key crop species in the fight for sustainability. In addition to uses as a fabric, Hemp can be used as a bedding for animals and livestock, in the Automotive Industry, in the Construction industry and as a medicine and nutritional supplement (1).
This highly desirable niche crop has been grown throughout the world for thousands upon thousands of years. Historically, Hemp has been cultivated across the world from at least 6000 years ago. During the 15th Century, Hemp cultivation and use in Europe became markedly popular. This was a result of Hemp fibre being a source for numerous products, including textiles and ropes. This commercial role grew in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, with the advent of synthetic fibres, Hemp cultivation began declining (2).
This once very diverse crop declined substantially after the second world war, and in the 1960s Hemp had nearly disappeared from all Western European countries. The renewed interest in Hemp started in the 1990s and was driven by a relatively simple cultivation process. After more than 20 years, Hemp is now a widely used and cultivated crop across the globe, being cultivated on 10,000 to 15,000 hectares in the European Union alone (3).
Despite its growing popularity, there remains one question, what is Hemp used for in the current world? And, what are the current exciting innovative products being made from Hemp?
Currently, Hemp is grown across the European Union, Central Asia, the Philippines and in China. Of this, the Hemp is split into Hemp fibre, shivs, dust and seeds, all of which are useful in their own right.
Hemp fibre is touted as having some of the best mechanical properties of any naturally occurring fibre. This, consequently, has incredibly diverse uses, including, as a sustainable insulation, use as a biocomposite in the Automotive Industry and in the construction industry. Hemp is also used in more traditional applications such as paper and pulp and as an insulator (4).
Despite being worth less than half of that of Hemp fibre, Hemp shivs are still an incredibly profitable market. In general, Hemp shivs are used in the animal bedding market. This is a result of their incredible potential to absorb moisture. In addition to this, shivs are also able to be used in the construction industry whereby shivs are mixed with lime (5). Shivs are also used as a source to fuel incinerators, especially in regards to producing heat and electricity (6).
Hemp seeds remain one of the more popular markets, with current nutrition trends focusing more and more on the value of Hemp seeds as a nutritional supplement. This uprising sees a greater percentage of harvested seeds to be processed into oil and protein for human consumption. This market has the highest potential for expansion with the ability for this market to increase by 100 times in the European Union alone (7).
Carbon sequestration is a critical function of sustainable agriculture, this is where Hemp can come in. Hemp has a high greenhouse gas sequestration potential as well as a high sequestration potential. This means that Hemp is able to bring in and lock down atmospheric greenhouse gases. This has been estimated as being 140% and 540% higher than rapeseed oil and sugar beet chains, respectively (8).
A number of investigations have also demonstrated that hemp is a good crop for phytoremediation. Phytoremediation is the process of “cleaning up” heavy metal contaminated soils. This environmentally friendly clean-up technique reduces costs of remediation and environmental damage, compared to more traditional techniques, such as dredging (9).
Hemp as a source of bio-energy production for the automotive world has recently taken scientists and engineers by storm. This exciting, and relatively new, potential application for Hemp has us all cheering from the sidelines. Industrial Hemp has been described as an excellent alternative candidate for bioethanol production in a number of investigations (10). This is based primarily on its high cellulose content compared to other agricultural residues. This exciting innovative use for Hemp is currently, however, hindered by the limited government policies (11). It is hoped in the future policy will finally meet innovation for Hemp in the bio-energy realm.
Lastly, Greener Biocomposites are the new player in the bioplastic arena. Greener biocomposites are a plant-derived fibre and a crop-derived plastics with high biobased content, with a large proportion coming from Hemp biomass (12). Biocomposites are not a new idea. Dating back to 1908, cellulose fibre-reinforced phenolic composite materials, made with renewable and sustainable resources, has become one of the most vital components of the next generation of industrial practice (13). These biocomposites find a wide range of potential applications including biomedical implants as well as plastic packaging.
The Bottom Line
Hemp, used for centuries as a source of fabric for products such as sails and ropes, has come back in force in the last two decades. Hemp is a multipurpose crop, with each component being applied in a number of industries, such as pharmaceutical, construction, animal bedding and automotive. A number of new innovations has been paving the way for this crop to be used as a tool to help climate change, clean up toxic soil as well as being used as a biocomposite, helping the war on pollution.