Hemp is a remarkable plant that humans have used for thousands of years for everything from manufacturing to munchies to moisturizer to medicine.
Hemp commerce is one of the oldest industries on the planet, dating back more than 10,000 years to the emergence of pottery, according to the Hemp Industries Association. The Columbia History of the World claims that a remnant of hemp fabric dating back to approximately 8,000 BC was discovered as one of the oldest relics of human industry.
While many countries—including the United States—ban or strictly limit the cultivation of hemp, China, Canada, and the UK are cashing in by allowing cultivation of hemp in the production chain of fabrics and building materials.
Some hemp advocates believe that hemp is a panacea that will cure all the ills of the planet. Eric Steenstra, President of the US-based hemp industry advocacy group Vote Hemp, and the executive director of the Hemp Industries Association, envisions hemp in far more products as manufacturers begin to use it as a more environmentally friendly alternative raw material in the creation of paper, textiles, building materials, and a host of other rapidly emerging products, such as batteries and biofuel.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the many ways hemp can be used and how increasing its use could change our planet for the better in the future.
One of the non-psychoactive compounds found in cannabis—cannabidiol, or CBD—is increasingly touted as a powerful medicine that has antimicrobial, neuroprotective, and anti-ischemic effects. CBD is also used to treat a rare and difficult-to-treat form of epilepsy called Dravet syndrome.
Although most cannabis-infused products can only be produced, sold, and consumed in states where voters have passed laws allowing the medical or recreational use of marijuana, industrial hemp-based CBD products are available in every state. That is because the FDA classifies them as a dietary supplement, not medication.
Like all hemp products, hempseed won’t get you high, but it will give you more protein than any other seed—about 10g per ounce. That’s about twice the protein found in chia and flax seeds. Hempseed also contains all of the essential amino acids, making it a complete source of protein just like chicken, fish, or beef. And since protein takes longer to digest than carbohydrates, they help you feel full for a longer period of time, so it is great for weight management.
Hempseed is also a natural source of potent vitamins and minerals that support a healthy immune system and metabolism. Each ounce of hempseed contains three-quarters of the daily recommended Vitamin E, a third of the recommended zinc, and a good amount of magnesium. Hempseed might also beneficially influence heart disease.
Hemp-oil-based skincare products are increasingly popular as an alternative to the petroleum-based products that dominate traditional pharmacy shelves. The oil is a natural moisturizer that makes skin feel smooth and soft and acts as a protective barrier to help prevent moisture loss. Makers of hemp-based cosmetics claim their products can reduce skin inflammation, heal skin lesions, and offer some protection against UV sun exposure.
Hemp oil is an emollient that is non-greasy and readily absorbs into the skin. People with psoriasis, acne, eczema, dandruff, and dry skin might benefit from topical applications. Ingested hemp oil may improve skin texture and suppleness. At least one study has found anecdotal evidence that dietary hempseed oil reduces symptoms of atopic dermatitis.
Sustainability – Rebuilding the Soil Itself and Saving Trees
With hemp, what’s good for the economy is also good for the planet. Hemp has “phytoremediation” properties, meaning that hemp, along with its associated microorganisms, can stabilize or reduce contamination in soil, sludge, sediment, and surface or groundwater. It readily takes up heavy metals from the soil (which is okay if you’re making rope out of it, but not okay if you’re making a medicinal tincture).
Deforestation has been a huge issue for environmentalists for decades. Chopping down trees causes untold damage to the local ecosystems, polluting and eliminating animals’ natural habitats. Hemp’s natural resistance to destructive forces—including fire, insects, and drought—enables cultivation without the use of harmful chemicals like herbicides or insecticides, making it a greener substitute for paper made from trees. Because hemp plants can be planted closely together, it can achieve higher yields per acre than other comparable crops. Its energy efficiency results in a smaller carbon footprint for the planet.
Growing hemp creates green jobs to replace those that might be “lost” in the timber or other affected industries. And it’s not just good for making paper: hemp can be made into products that are strong, breathable, thermal resistant, and durable including insulation, drywall, cabinets, furniture … the possibilities are, as might be said, endless.
Hemp’s value as a durable plant fiber material lies in the construction of the plant. Hemp is a bast fiber crop: it has a stem consisting of an outer skin containing long, strong fibers and a hollow wood-like core or pith. During processing, the stems are divided into two materials, hurds, and fibers, which are used in the manufacture of a variety of products.
Hemp hurds can be compressed to produce an assortment of wood-like products, such as fiberboard, roofing tiles, wallboard, paneling, insulation, and bricks. Hemp fibers can also be used like straw in bale-wall construction or mixed with subsoil and water to build cob structures.
Hempcrete is a bio-composite made of the inner woody core, or “shiv,” of the hemp plant mixed with a lime-based binder. The shiv’s high silica content enables it to bind with lime to create lightweight insulation material that weighs less than 15 percent of the weight of concrete (dried hempcrete blocks will float in water).
Some hemp enthusiasts claim hempcrete foundation walls are up to seven times stronger than and three times as pliable as those made of concrete, so they don’t require expansion joints, and they are more resistant to cracking and breaking, even in earthquake-prone areas. Hemp materials are naturally self-insulating and resistant to rotting, fire, water, and infestations by rodents and insects.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
In addition to buildings, many of the metal and plastic components that make up cars and even planes could someday be made from materials developed from hemp. Such material would be lighter and therefore increase fuel efficiency, and the new components themselves would be biodegradable.
“Hemp fibers have higher strength to weight ratio than steel and can also be considerably cheaper to manufacture,” says Alan Crosky, a professor at the School of Material Science and Engineering, University of New South Wales in Australia.
Along similar lines, Derek Kesek, a former organic restaurant owner, is currently crowdfunding a project to build a plane made almost entirely out of hemp (75 percent). He’s heard all the jokes about “flying high,” but if it works, it will have a much smaller carbon footprint than planes made of fiberglass.
While hemp is chiefly grown industrially for clothing and building materials, the leftover bast fiber—the inner bark—has typically ended up as waste. But in 2013, scientists used hemp bast fibers to build high-performance energy storage devices. Made by baking the material into carbon nanosheets, the resulting supercapacitors perform at least as well as graphene, a material that is considered the industry’s gold standard.
Supercapacitors are like super-powered rechargeable batteries that can charge in seconds but are not yet capable of storing the same amount of energy that traditional rechargeable batteries can store. Research indicates, however, that hemp-based technology will provide for solar-powered energy for a week from just one hour of sunlight.
In August 2014, Dr. David Mitlin of Clarkson University, New York, boasted to the BBC that his team was using hemp waste material to make graphene-like materials for a thousandth of the price. The low cost of hemp-based supercapacitor technology might lead to better touchscreens and batteries, including solar-powered batteries.
As we become increasingly aware that we are rapidly depleting the world’s finite supply of fossil fuels, humans are looking everywhere for a replacement source of power. Although renewable biofuels made from corn (ethanol) currently dominate, cannabis-based biofuels are beginning to enter the discussion.
The essential oils in hemp can even be used to make not only fuels to power our cars, but also ultra-performing diesel and jet fuels. Hemp offers many advantages over wheat- and corn-based ethanol, including higher soil conservation, elimination of herbicides and pesticides, higher yields, and greater suitability for cellulosic ethanol production. Production costs for cannabis-based biofuels are half that of corn-based ethanol, and profits from just the hemp seed alone can quintuple that of crops such as soy. Farmers have reported that they have used less water, no pesticides, and no fertilizers, and their crop yield was still amazingly robust!
As awareness of and ongoing research concerning the real and potential benefits of hemp grows, so do the chances of changes in law to legalize hemp cultivation in America. United Patients Group applauds these efforts, and we look forward to a happy, hempy future.