The 1987 comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles features Steve Martin and John Candy as strangers struggling to get home for the Thanksgiving holiday. In the film, Candy’s character is a salesman who sells shower-curtain rings. These days, his character — whom Kevin Hart will reprise alongside Will Smith in an upcoming remake — could just as easily sell hemp rings that hold up a hemp shower curtain next to the set of hemp towels. These products epitomize the rise of hemp products, but what’s really impressive is how hemp also made its way into actual planes, trains and automobiles.
Hempearth made global headlines in 2019 when it introduced plans for the first plane made from and powered by hemp. According to the Canadian company, the hemp material used in these four-passenger planes will be 10 times stronger than steel, and it will replace fiberglass on more than 75 percent of the aircraft, including the wings, seats and outer shell. The inaugural flight is expected to depart from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where the Wright brothers famously conducted the first-ever plane flight in 1903.
To complete the project, Hempearth needs to raise at least $500,000, and it has not had much luck with its GoFundMe page and other capital-raising efforts. While working to secure more investment, Hempearth continues to sell hemp surfboards, paddleboards, tape and plastics.
Meanwhile, researchers continue to publish studies on hemp-fiber composites and their use in aircraft components, and the findings look good. As noted by the Journal of Advanced Engineering Trends in 2021, “The hemp-skin demonstrates comparable compression properties to those of carbon fiber under edge compressive load. The skin from hemp has great fracture resistance while the carbon one experienced dramatic fracture, tearing, and delamination. This outcome of the current study, in addition to the lightweight, low-cost ease handling, simple manufacturing and eco-friendship make the hemp a competitive industrial material in aerospace applications.”
Hemp can certainly play a role in building the structure and interior of train cabins, but a more surprising use might be brake pads. A study published in 2008 described the benefits of replacing the aramid fibers (e.g., Kevlar) in brake pads with natural hemp fibers. Armaid fibers are expensive and potentially bad for the environment, expelling the dust of heavy metal compounds into the air as the pads wear down. Still, natural fibers must perform at a high level if they are to serve as a replacement.
Here’s what the study found: “[Natural fiber composites] should possess sufficient mechanical strength, high wear resistance and thermal characteristics to withstand severe temperature and operating conditions during braking. Among the different natural fibers, such as hemp, jute, flax, cotton, sisal and kenaf, researchers have found that jute and hemp possess better tribological characteristics. Hemp has the advantage over jute because it can be spun and mixed to produce fiber blends with optimized properties.”
As for testing the hemp brake pads, the study noted, “The team showed that new blends consisting of hemp fibers offered the same frictional performance as pads made using aramid fiber. This new material, which avoids the use of heavy metals and is based on a tin compound, offers an alternative to lead and antimony friction modifiers which cause health hazards.”
Other benefits for rail? Aramid fiber can cost 20 to 30 times more than hemp fiber, while composites made with hemp can weigh up to 40 percent less.
An editorial about the research highlighted the potential market for these pads: “The main end-user, European Friction Industries (EFI), is particularly interested in exploiting the use of hemp in train brakes. Customers in Norway and other parts of Europe want to remove the use of sintered metal brakes that result in heavy metals getting into the environment. Interest is also expected from operators of underground and metro lines because of health concerns over airborne brake dust in enclosed spaces.”
Hemp, while arguably the best option, is one of many natural fibers viewed as an eco-friendly alternative to aramid. In addition to trains, hemp also works for brake pads in… you guessed it… automobiles.
Henry Ford, the legendary entrepreneur who started Ford Motor Company, was a major advocate for hemp, and he introduced a bioplastic car body in 1941 that was partly made out of hemp. (Yes, there’s video.) Ford believed hemp could play a major role in the future of the automobile industry, and nearly a century later, his visionary intuition appears to be correct.
Luxury brands like BMW, Audi and Mercedes are among the many who now utilize parts made from hemp, which provides strength and toughness while reducing the car’s overall weight. As for more comprehensive use, former Dell exec Bruce Dietzen started Renew Sports Cars. His made-to-order cars, which made an appearance on Jay Leno’s Garage, feature hemp shells and other hemp-based parts. Though yet to go into production, Motive Industries introduced the Kestrel prototype in 2010, and the body of this electric car is made almost entirely out of hemp-based biocomposite material. It’s one of many hemp-related projects that are apparently in the works from Project Eve.
Hemp provides an alternative upgrade to carbon fiber, fiberglass, polyester and other materials, but hemp uses don’t stop there. Hemp seed oil can be processed into oils and greases that help lubricate the moving parts and actually reduce carbon emissions. Processing the oil can also transform it into a biodiesel fuel, while the whole hemp plant can be used to produce ethanol. Hempearth, for example, plans to run its proposed hemp plane on the company’s own Hemp Jet-A Biofuel.
From planes to trains to cars, hemp is coming on board and making improvements that will help everyone reach their destination. Hemp not only helps keep the passengers safe, the eco-friendly plant also helps keep the destinations safe by promoting a healthier planet.