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Hemp on the horizon

December 21st, 2020 / By: / Feature

Natural materials can help achieve a cost and benefit balance in sustainability goals. 

by Seshadri Ramkumar

COVID-19 has up-ended our normal way of life, which we may have taken for granted. With the economy suffering as a result, and with the need to create growth and employment, the manufacturing sector has its work cut out for it. Effective use of resources, reviving the manufacturing sector and enabling self-sufficiency in advanced textile products are priority action items for the industrial fabrics sector in the United States. 

The pandemic has also made us think about sustainability, its value and cost. In fact, the present pandemic has highlighted the importance of natural products, be it cellulosic fibers or natural chemicals to develop life-saving materials. These interests can strengthen the sustainability industry, provided we can achieve a balance between costs and benefits.

Starting with the materials

In early April this year, based on research conducted by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) in the late 1960s, I started promoting the positive attributes of cotton in destabilizing some viruses. The advanced textiles sector could take clues from this early research and look for new opportunities. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is currently working to standardize masks, considering filtration capability and breathability. Given the information on their influence, new standardization efforts should also pay attention to material types and the structure of substrates. 

Although it is generally believed that sustainability adds to cost, in the long run sustainable practices are going to benefit stakeholders and society overall. “Today, sustainable materials may demand a premium, but in the long run, price point may come down,” said sustainability expert and Google Scholar Dr. Dnyanada Satam. 

Sustainable and value-added materials that demand a higher price will not be an issue for developing products that find applications in health care and the environmental industry. Given the importance of functionality in fields such as infrastructure, automotive and defense, performance attributes, requirements and cost factors must be carefully evaluated. If performance requirements are met by sustainable materials, their cost will be less significant. 

Hemp: a new opportunity

Hemp is a bast fiber from the plant Cannabis sativa. These fibers are rich in lignin, and they are stiffer—an advantage for certain high-performance applications. This advantage should be exploited, rather than attempting to push into markets that demand other performance attributes, such as softness and smoothness. When considering the innate attributes of fibers like hemp, flax, coir and jute, it’s clear that they are instead well suited for industrial applications. 

The passage of the 2108 Farm Bill enables the production of hemp with a regulation that its tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is less than 0.3 percent. About 46 states in the U.S. that have legalized growing hemp meet the regulation. Recently, the hemp-related association Vote Hemp has been lobbying for approval of hemp with elevated THC content up to one percent.

Supporting factors include indications that a smaller quantity of resources will be required, and there is the possibility of cultivating hemp in conditions similar to cotton. Right now, interest is high in the CBD oil segment. This is the initial attraction for farmers, but the fibers can serve as valuable byproducts.

“Cotton farmers are looking for diversifying risks and looking for new market opportunities. These are the reasons that farmers in the Carolinas and West Texas are looking at hemp,” says Dr. Kater Hake, vice president of agricultural and environmental research at Cary, N.C.-based Cotton Inc. 

In places where water is a precious commodity and when sales are dependent on exports, new and favorable opportunities are always welcome. This is true for crops like cotton in the U.S. 

“Cotton plantings represent the largest acreage plantings on the High Plains of Texas, averaging 4.2 million acres the last five years. Many High Plains cotton farmers plant other crops today for various economic and agronomic reasons. We welcome any new crop such as hemp that would provide our farmers a new economic opportunity to increase their profitability,” says Steve Verett, chief executive officers of Lubbock, Texas-based Plains Cotton Growers Inc.

Challenges ahead

“Hemp is new to consumers and may replace synthetics in certain blends in developing consumer products,” says Kater Hake. However, there are some challenges ahead and the knowledge base must be strengthened. 

Upstream fiber processing capabilities like retting, breaking of fibers, baling and transportation logistics must be enhanced. In the short term, applications where softness and smoothness are not critical can be explored, such as for industrial products. From a farmer’s point of view, diversifying crops as a conservation measure and looking for value-added opportunities enable planting hemp. However, it needs to be done with care due to the THC regulation. 

Applications of hemp in fiber form can be categorized as either industrial products or consumer products. In the near term, the industrial market may be the best opportunity, as noted, because characteristics such as rigidity and stiffness may be beneficial. For example, durability, strength, and performance characteristics of 100 percent hemp-based products in geotextile applications need thorough exploration. 

But while developing products, there should also be a focused development on the machinery used. The consumer textiles sector can look for hemp utilization in blends with cotton and other fibers, but this will involve an understanding of machinery and blend compatibilities. “Being natural” is the incentive. “All-natural fibers are great because of plastic pollution in food and water ecosystems,” says Kater Hake.

Mechanical bonding nonwoven technologies are predominantly focused on fibers such as polyester, viscose, cotton and their blends. There is a need to build consortiums involving farmers, policy makers, machinery manufacturers and textile manufactures to investigate future material and market possibilities. The nonwoven and technical textiles sectors are already looking to use hemp for developing industrial wipes, with the incentive being sustainability, but processing remains a challenge. 

For any market use, performance standards and requirements must be developed, which will keep associations like the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI) and the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA) busy. 

At the present time, the personal care market drives hemp cultivation, followed by food, industrial and consumer applications. Consumer textiles contribute about 14 percent of hemp sales, according to Jon Devine, senior economist Cotton Inc. “Lack of downstream supply chain and import issues may influence the hemp sector,” Devine adds. 

Given that hemp sales to the apparel segment are miniscule, what influences cultivation? Being a sustainable fiber and opportunities in industrial markets will enable it to be an alternative fiber to synthetics, provided its performance characteristics are suitable. But the industry is new, and as such it offers enormous opportunity to research and explore new applications and markets. 

Seshardri Ramkumar, Ph.D., is a professor at Texas Tech University and a frequent contributor to Advanced Textiles Source.