Industrial application of hemp
Hemp, or Cannabis sativa L., is a dicotyledonous plant in which the concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is less than the regulated maximum level. Interest in hemp has increased in recent years: indeed, although it has traditionally been grown for its fibres, seeds, and psychoactive substances, several hemp varieties represent ideal multipurpose crops used in the circular bioeconomy. The materials derived from the plant are reusable, biodegradable and compostable and the industrial potential of hemp biomass is enormous for numerous applications, such as food, bioplastic fuels, biocomposite building materials, feeding animals, paper, cosmetics, nutraceuticals and many others.
First, hemp is a natural textile fiber used in many different industries, for example to make canvas and sacks, automotive components, clothing, and home textiles, and is an extremely efficient and environmentally friendly building material, being quite resistant to moisture and fire and being almost 100% recyclable.
Furthermore, various parts of the hemp plant represent a valuable source of food and ingredients for nutritional supplements: hemp seed represents a valuable source of essential amino acids and fatty acids, minerals, vitamins, and fibers, hempseed oil is a source of healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids and hemp sprouts are rich in antioxidants. For these reasons hemp could be a valuable food for both human and animals. Hemp proprieties are also important for therapeutic application, thanks to the presence of hundreds of different cannabinoids, among which one of the most notable is cannabidiol (CBD).
Hemp oil, thanks to its propriety, is also a good alternative to the chemicals used in many lotions and cosmetics and hemp flowers and leaves contain essential oils that can be used in perfumes, soaps, and candles. Finally industrial hemp is valuable due to its high biomass and energy yields per hectare, and it can be used to produce different pathway of bioenergy (methanol, bioethanol, biogas, biodiesel).
The versatile nature of hemp potentially represents multi-billion-dollar downstream markets, particularly in the production of reusable, recyclable and compostable biomaterials.
The importance of hemp for environmental protection
Hemp is an annual plant and requires a small amount of land for cultivation, producing up to double the fiber yield per hectare than other natural fibers. It consumes much less water than other plants and doesn’t need pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers during cultivation because is susceptible to few pests due to the lack of natural predators. Moreover, hemp is highly adaptable to the European climate, therefore it grows with low rater input in different part of Europe, including marginal lands. These characteristics further make it an ideal candidate for industrial applications, compared to other more difficult plants to grow.
In addition, hemp can play an important role in environmental protection: one hectare of hemp can absorb 9 to 15 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere during one vegetation period, like the quantity seized from a young forest, but it takes only five months to grow. This feature allows hemp to improve air quality, thermal balance and ensure a positive environmental impact. The additional benefits of hemp growing are the suppression of weed growth, anti-erosion properties and the ability to drain the soil of poisonous substances and heavy metals, making its growth possible on contaminated sites, contributing to soil remediation.
Hemp can also contribute to preserve biodiversity, because it produces large amounts of pollen and the flowering cycle usually takes place between July and September, coinciding with the lack of pollen production from other crops.
These means that Cannabis sativa L. can contribute to fight climate change in all the stages of its value chain.
Interconnected and interregional supply chains to enhance industrial hemp potential
The transition of traditional industrial sectors based on the use of fossil raw materials towards a greener and circular forms of production that use renewable raw materials is an essential step for competitive and sustainable growth. This challenge requires an innovation ecosystem capable of supporting the reduction of the environmental impact along the supply chain and promoting the connection of industrial actors. The creation of value chains based on the industrial symbiosis between the agricultural and chemical-industrial sectors is an indispensable step for the effective realization of this transformation. The use of biomass to create circular bioeconomy business models is the basis for developing sustainable products, which imply joint efforts for the creation of integrated supply chains and opportunities for all actors involved.
In this context, the HempClub project, launched in February 2022, works to create interconnected and interregional supply chains in the hemp sector, triggering green and sustainable innovation and enhancing industrial hemp potential.
Published first on the ECCP website: https://clustercollaboration.eu/community-news/hempclub-project-sustainable-eu-bioeconomy