The hemp plant is one of the world’s most misunderstood crops, due to the fact that closely related plants are cultivated to produce marijuana. Since these plants are in the same genus (Cannabis), hemp has been restricted in the United States, beginning with the passage of the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. This act lumped the hemp plant into the same category as the drug marijuana, and the general public became concerned that the plants were one and the same. In turn, farmers began to shy away from growing the crop, and by 1970, hemp cultivation was illegal.
Up until the ban, hemp was grown in the US to make a variety of products, ranging from paper to clothing to organic foods. Farmers favored the crop because of its resilience and many applications—according to the North American Industrial Hemp Council, more than 25,000 different products can be made from hemp.
Over time, research has proven that although hemp and marijuana are related, they are very different, and industrial hemp has no hallucinogenic or drug-like effects whatsoever. Several American companies use hemp seeds, fiber, and oil to make a variety of products, although they must import these materials because hemp cultivation is still prohibited at the federal level. In 2012, the demand for hemp products in the US supported a $500 million industry. Discover some of the innovative uses for the hemp plant.
Hemp as an Alternative Fuel
Because hemp has a low moisture content, scientists have explored its use as an alternative fuel. Specifically, hemp oil is a rich source of ethanol and methanol when treated with a process called thermo-chemical conversion. One acre of hemp can yield approximately 1,000 gallons of fuel. The further exploration of hemp as an alternative fuel source could significantly reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, thus helping to combat climate change.
On top of the fact that hemp can be converted into an alternative fuel, the process of growing hemp can benefit the environment. Although carbon dioxide is released when hemp is burned as fuel, a new crop can quickly absorb this—the fast-growing hemp plant can be harvested only 120 days after being planted. With its numerous leaves, the hemp plant produces a large amount of oxygen and absorbs many of the harmful greenhouse gases that cause climate change.
Green Building with Hemp
It’s clear that hemp is a versatile plant that can be used in a variety of creative ways. The construction industry has begun to incorporate hemp in building materials, including fiberboard, soundproofing materials, insulation, and bio-thermal plastics.
For example, combining hemp fiber and lime produces a material called “hempcrete” that is dense and insulating, yet sturdier and more lightweight than concrete. This natural product can replace wood and concrete during the building process, which results in less construction site waste. In a similar vein, bioplastics made with long hemp fibers are nearly as durable as fiberglass, much safer for workers, and cheaper than glass.
Insulation is also an important part of any structure—it provides protection against the heat, cold, and humidity, and can help regulate indoor energy use. Builders typically rely on foam or fiberglass insulation, which often contains substances that are directly connected to global warming, and potentially harmful to human health. By using hemp-lime as insulation, we can construct buildings that have a lighter impact on the planet and are healthier, safer places to live and work—in other words, truly green buildings.
Not only can hemp be used to make fuel and building materials, it also offers advantages to those who farm it. Hemp’s main benefit is soil enrichment, due to its density and hardy nature. In addition, sunlight is less likely to penetrate to the roots, making it hard for weeds to grow in a field of hemp. This density also reduces erosion of topsoil, which in turn significantly reduces water contamination.
The roots of the hemp plant can also nourish the soil, thanks to the high nitrogen content of the plant. This makes the soil perfect for adding to composts, as well as growing other crops. The soil is of such high quality that the same soil can be rotated and used to grow hemp crops for several years.
Despite these benefits, and the recent progress on differentiating hemp from marijuana, some farmers are still reluctant to cultivate hemp. This may be due to ambiguous rules that, if not precisely followed, can expose them to government raids, seizure of assets, and even prison time. At present, federal policy does not clearly differentiate between non-drug (or industrial-grade) and drug varieties of cannabis.
However, as more awareness is raised about the immense benefits and few risks associated with hemp, industrial hemp may become more popular among farmers, builders, and the general public.