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Blending hemp and polymer for new modeling opportunities

M ention the word "hemp" to most people and they probably think of a lifestyle vaguely associated with "flower power," Woodstock and 60s music.


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March 1, 2008 by Mark Stephen, Managing Editor

Mention the word “hemp” to most people and they probably think of a lifestyle vaguely associated with “flower power,” Woodstock and 60s music.

A new two-year, $2.25 million project headed by the Edmonton-based Alberta Research Council (ARC) might just modernize the hemp plant’s image, however, by blending hemp fibre with polymer to form a biocomposite suitable for use in everything from molded automobile parts to houses.

According to Dr. John Wolodko, program leader at the ARC, products made from the hemp and polymer biocomposite can offer substantial advantages when compared to the more conventional glass fibre-strengthened polymers used by industry today. “Natural fibres such as hemp are a renewable resource, are very light and very inexpensive, and emit fewer greenhouse gases during production,” he said. “And while not quite as strong as glass fibres, they have stiffness values that are very close.”

Ultimately, a hemp and polymer biocomposite could be used in any application that uses reinforced polymers, Wolodko continued, including automobile parts, building materials and a variety of other consumer goods.

Similar research has already been carried out in Europe, Wolodko noted, where hemp fibres have been integrated into such items as automobile panels. But in North America the concept is still in its infancy. “We have the opportunity to take what they’ve learned in Europe, adapt the technology for Alberta and provide the foundation for a new industry,” he said.

Along with funding from the Alberta government, the ARC is partnered with Edmonton-based A T Plastics Inc., which is supplying the polymers; and Naturally Advanced Technologies, a Vancouver company that focuses on developing technologies for the advancement of natural fibres.

The ARC grows its own hemp in test plots at its Vegreville, Alta. facilities, Wolodko said, where experiments are currently being conducted to develop new forms of genetically-modified industrial hemp for use in the polymer biocomposite. “Industrial hemp is low in THC, which is the hallucinogenic factor that can produce marijuana,” he said. “The benefit of developing hemp without THC is the possibility of penetration into U. S. markets, which is limited at present because of a ban there on industrial hemp due to the potential drug issue.”

Other important aspects of the program include determining how much hemp to blend with the plastic, what length of fibres to use, and how different types of hemp plants will affect the pellet. “To conduct these tests, we have pilot-scale facilities for fibre processing and also access to a large compounding machine,” Wolodko said.

The hemp fibre project was initiated last November, and the ARC hopes to have an optimized pellet formulation commercially available at the end of the two-year funding period. Wolodko recognizes, though, that it may take longer for the hemp and polymer biocomposite to penetrate Canada’s manufacturing industry. “I would expect that we are looking at five to ten years before we have large-scale focus to the market,” he said. “But we are committed to creating this project, and to the idea of environmentally friendly biocomposites competing with nonrenewable products like fiberglass.”

Alberta Research Council Inc. (Edmonton, Alta.); www.arc.ab.ca; 780-450-5111

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Blending hemp and polymer for new molding opportunities