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Unconventional crop could sprout new industry


Vegreville, AB – As combines mowed farmers’ fields across Canadian prairies this fall, there was a scene near Edmonton right out of a time warp: a crew of workers using their hands to harvest plants. They were taking down three-metre-tall hemp plants at a breeding nursery outside of Vegreville. The plants, which dwarfed the workers, were bundled, numbered, bagged and transported to researchers, who see a high-tech future for the ancient plant.

The Alberta Research Council (ARC) is working to help hemp find its way into everything from homes to cars to clothes. It’s part of a campaign to see our agriculture and forestry industries compete in the global push for sustainable products.

“ARC is evaluating hemp as a fibre crop for mature, large-scale industries looking for green products. Alberta’s soil and climate are perfectly suited for growing hemp crops,” says ARC crop and plant physiologist, Jan Slaski. “We analyze the seed and plant for biomass and fibre yield, as part of the breeding program for creating the perfect industrial hemp,” says Slaski. ARC uses advanced breeding techniques to develop traits such as water and nitrogen use efficiency, with no useable trace of the psychoactive compound THC, which is found in marijuana. The breeding program will ultimately lead to a stronger plant with a bigger yield.

In ARC’s Edmonton facility, advanced materials program leader John Wolodko picks up a boat part made from material pressed from hemp and plastic. “This is traditionally made from fiberglass,” he says. “Products made from biocomposites work as well as those made from conventional materials, with the advantages of being lighter and less expensive. The ability of environmentally friendly products to compete with non-renewable products like fiberglass makes for a competitive and promising future for the biocomposites industry.”

Slaski and Wolodko are part of ARC’s biofibre development team, the largest of its kind in Canada, offering solutions from “seed to final product.” Hemp is only one aspect of the biofibre program, but its unrivalled fibre and biomass yield make the fast-growing and versatile crop a potential biocomposite superstar. While wheat straw yields about 3 tonnes of fibre per hectare, hemp weighs in at 10 to 15 tonnes.

Slaski peels a hemp stalk, holds the outer fibre in both hands and yanks with force. The fibre is unrelenting. The peeled outer and inner layers each have different industry potential. Applications for the resilient, long outer (bast) fibre include car parts, textiles, reinforced cement and panel boards for construction. Hemp’s inner core (hurd) fibre is only a half-millimeter long and has only recently seen a high demand. “It is appealing as an absorbent for the oil and gas industry or bedding for livestock operations, since it has no dust,” says Slaski.

Alberta’s new ally for the agriculture and forestry industries is the Alberta Biomaterials Development Centre (ABDC), a $15 million facility set up by the province to bring advanced products and sustainable solutions to market. “The hemp processing challenge is an example of where ABDC will fill technical gaps in processing biomaterials and business gaps to get products to market faster,” says ARC business development manager Richard Gibson.

ABDC offers access to expertise, test facilities, scale-up equipment, validation prototyping and customer-demonstration support. “Bio-industrial entrepreneurs will be able to test their business cases at ABDC,” says Alberta Agriculture program leader and ABDC spokesperson Trevor Kloeck. “Industry will have access to staff and specialized equipment, such as technology used to separate the different hemp fibres. Then the market applications are endless.”

ABDC’s resources work in tandem with those at ARC to form a bridge between the field and the final product. “We have a patent-pending decortication process. This technology produces 10 to 50 mm-length fibres, for biocomposite products and pulp and paper applications,” says ARC research engineer Laura McIlveen. “ABDC has slightly different technology: a long-line decorticator, which processes one-third-metre-length fibre at one tonne an hour.” Both technologies are available through ABDC for pilot scale market assessments.

Hemp is currently grown in Alberta for the high quality oil niche market. But the case for using a new and improved strain of hemp for a broad range of products is becoming stronger by the day. “It also makes sense to include hemp in rotation with wheat and canola,” says Slaski, “since it can reduce the spread of disease and increase the life of the fertility of the soil.”

That could mean that scene out of the time warp will vanish, as hemp becomes a lucrative industrial crop, harvested with high-tech machinery to provide solutions for green products.