In November last year, 90 hemp experts from 23 countries and five continents met in Hürth in the Rhineland (Germany) to exchange views on the current status and future trends of the global hemp industry. Special highlights of the conference were the manifold industrial applications of hemp in China, the interest of the wood materials industry in hemp as alternative raw material for board materials, and the use of hemp fibers in the bioplastics and automotive industry (see our short overview of how car manufacturers are increasingly embedding bio-based products into the vehicles of the future).
Michael Carus, managing director of the German Nova-Institut and president of the EIHA revealed the background of the increasing interest in hemp. The transition from fossil to renewable resources (the 'raw material shift' ushering in the era of the 'bioeconomy') leads to a shortage and price increase of biomass and particularly wood. That makes a fast growing, high-yielding and mechanically strong plant such as hemp interesting for many branches: the plastics and composite, automotive, furniture, building, paper and textile industry. Economist Sven Ortmann, also of the Nova-Institut, presented the price developments of mineral oil and plastics as well as competing natural fibres on the world market over the past years [*.pdf]. Considerable price increases can be found everywhere. European natural fibres such as flax and hemp are more and more becoming competitive – although in the next five years, they surely still will be dependent on certain EU subsidies.
An overview of regional developments and applications in the industrial hemp industry, as they were reported at the conference:
Erik Shi of the Chinese hemp company Yunnan Industrial Hemp Inc. (Kunming City/China) reported on large growth rates in the Chinese hemp industry. Hemp fibres are used in the paper and automotive industry, but also as reinforcement of plastics for window frames and floor coverings for the interior and exterior. These products shall be used on a large scale also at the Olympic Games 2008 in Beijing. Furthermore hemp hurds are processed into lightweight boards that are exported as agroboards to South Africa, for example.
In Europe, a large number activities are going on that give reason to expect a rapid expansion of the meagre areas currently under cultivation (16,000 ha). For example, Bengt Svennerstedt of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (Alnarp, Sweden) reported on the interest of the Swedish companies IKEA, Volvo and Saab in hemp fibres and hurds. Exceptional growth rates can be found in the Czech Republic, where hemp cultivation has been rediscovered in recent years, today already amounting to more than 1,000 ha. The development of new harvest and separation techniques was presented at the conferecence by Jaroslav Skoumal, the managing director of CANABIA (Hodonin, Czech Republic).
In Italy, the Gruppo Fibranova (Perignano) is planning considerable investments to reintroduce hemp fibres to the Italian textile industry. For this purpose, the hemp fibres are to be separated into high-grade long fibres (price 2.5 to 3 €/kg) by means of enzymes (bio-degumming) and wet spun, as reported by Cesare Tofani, managing director of Gruppo Fibranova and member of the board of directors of the EIHA. For the simultaneously accumulating short fibres, technical applications are aimed at, such as the reinforcement of plastics:
biomass :: bioenergy :: energy :: sustainability :: cannabis sativa :: hemp :: fibers :: textiles :: bioplastics :: biofuels :: bioeconomy ::
Another project bringing hemp back onto the textile market is underway in the"region "Euregio Rhein-Waal", where a German-Dutch project team has been examining the textile value-added chain from cultivation to hemp jeans for years. Here the hemp fibre is separated by means of steam explosion, a technique that was developed already in the eighties at the IAF in Reutlingen (Germany). Project leader Marcel Toonen of Plant Research International (Wageningen, Netherlands) is convinced that the first hemp jeans from respectively Germany and the Netherlands will be available on the market within the next years – at prices merely slightly higher than those of other brand jeans. Participants from Asia pointed out that they are also about developing hemp textiles as alternative to cotton textiles.
Michael Karus, managing director of Nova-Institut and EIHA, as well as Dirk Fischer of the mechanical engineering company for natural fibre press-moulded parts, R+S Technik GmbH (Offenbach/Germany, ), gave an overview of the use of hemp and other natural fibres in the automotive industry. According to Carus, in the year of 2005, for the first time 19,000 tons of natural fibres were used in the German automotive production, mainly press-moulded parts, but also in injection moulding and press flow-moulding parts. In recent years, his company has been delivering respective facilities to Iran, India and China – and right now, several new projects are about to begin. In the new Chinese medium-class limousine “Brilliance” that has been available also on the German market since December 2006, 80% of the interior parts were realised based on natural fibre materials – a new record.
Other projects dealt with the advancement of separation techniques; here chemical and enzymatic techniques are examined, or also the processing way of hemp silage which is especially interesting in case that the final products can be produced directly from the wet silage. Such a process chain was shown for different building products by Ralf Pecenka of the Institut für Agrartechnik (Potsdam, Germany). The University of Leeds is doing basic research that was presented on the congress by Tony Blake.
The new economic interest in hemp is not restricted to the paper industry. Also the wood material industry is suffering from the high wood prices and deteriorated availabilities – also due to the energy sector`s demand for wood. It is therefore searching for alternative raw materials. Different companies from Canada and Europe for the first time in decades showed concrete interest in large-scale hemp cultivation for the production of lightweight boards. Since last year, the Kosche company from Munich (Germany) has been the first to offer hemp lightweight boards that are particularly suitable for the use in lorries, camping vehicles and the shipbuilding sector.
Natural fibre-reinforced bioplastics
Jörg Müssig of the Faserinstitut Bremen (Germany) introduced a seminal combination in theory and practice: natural fibre reinforced bioplastics. Especially the properties profile of the bioplastics PLA which is commercially available on the market can be improved by means of hemp and other natural fibres, becoming more attractive in terms of prices at the same time. Müssig showed own attempts and examples from Japan, a kenaf reinforced polylactic-acid (PLA) handy housing as well as one from Germany, a PLA hemp fibre jewel case. Frank Otrember of M-Base (Aachen/Germany) gave a comprehensive overview of the properties of polypropylene natural fibre granulates for injection moulding applications compared to talcum-filled and glass fibre reinforced PP as well as PC/ABS. Otremba said that there were ‘many interesting properties’, such as the high form stability under pressure and temperature.
The Dutch company NPSP Composieten BV (Haarlem, Netherlands) is manufacturing diverse products using the RTM technique. Managing director Willem Böttger calls his material ‘Nabasco’, if the reinforcement is done with natural fibre nonwovens. The nonwovens come from Germany, as fibres, hemp and flax are used. Examples of application are mushroom-shaped guideposts for bicycle paths, housings of radar units (glass fibres do disturb the radar rays), boats, furniture and loudspeakers. At the end, NPSP presented wall elements with long hemp fibres in which the embedded fibres are not only used for reinforcement, but also for a 3D design effect.
In North America, hemp so far has been cultivated mainly for the food industry. The Canadian hemp industry can look back on successful years and has cultivated almost 20,000 hectares of hemp exclusively for seed use for the first time in 2006, with the hemp seeds going into the US food industry for the most part. The USA are amongst the small number of countries worldwide in which industrial hemp cultivation still is forbidden – to the Canadian farmers’ delight. Right now some projects are going on in Canada in order to utilise hemp fibres and hurds as well; amongst other things, they are about the reinforcement of Polylactide (PLA) with hemp fibres to extend the field of applications of this bioplastics. But interest is shown also by the chipboard industry that is in search of new raw materials due to wood shortages, definitely considering larger hemp projects.
The mood at the 4th EIHA Conference was substantially different from previous years. One could sense the shift on the raw material markets, the shortages and price increases particularly of wood. For the first time since the nineties, there was a real interest, a real demand – although still noncommittal – for large amounts of industrial hemp for different branches. One could sense a new interest in hemp. This became clear also through a large number of new projects and investments, ideas and products as well as a couple of new actors.
European Industrial Hemp Association, homepage.