Hemp 101

Hemp Stalk 101

When it comes to the different parts of the hemp plant, the stalks are the most versatile, producing everything from clothing and paper to plastics and biofuel. Just as the individual parts of the hemp plant have different uses, the stalk features a woody core and a fibrous outer shell that also have different applications. 

The bast fibers on the outer stalk are strong and durable and highly prized for their length, with primary fibers reaching up to 40 millimeters in length. As demonstrated by fashion brands like Patagonia, Nike and Levi’s, hemp fiber can be used to make shirts, jeans and other everyday clothing items. The durability of the fiber makes it useful material for rope, nets, canvas and sails. The outer stalk also provides the preferred fibers for making hemp paper, which the Chinese likely introduced thousands of years ago. 

Just as the Mayflower utilized hemp fibers in its journey across the Atlantic, America’s oldest Navy Ship — the USS Constitution, a.k.a. “Old Ironsides” —  utilized more than 120,000 pounds of hemp for its voyages. The U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are both on parchment, but several drafts were on hemp paper, as were early printings of the King James and Gutenberg Bibles. Hemp even played a role in protecting at least one recent president. As noted by the L.A. Times in 2014,  “The hemp webbing in his parachute saved George H.W. Bush’s life in World War II.”

The shorter fibers in the inner stalk — often referred to as “hemp hurd” — are commonly used for animal bedding, but in recent years, they’ve found new use as the primary ingredient in hempcrete. The New York Times describes hempcrete as flexible, airtight yet breathable, impervious to mold and pests, fireproof and free from toxins. To make the bricks, lime and water are added to the straw causing it to grow harder. The straw is then molded into sturdy yet light bricks that are easier to transport. 

Château Maris, a vineyard in southern France, built its 9,000-square-foot complex primarily out of organic hemp straw bricks, which epitomizes the environmental value of hempcrete. The bricks capture carbon dioxide (CO2), reduce soil erosion, require no pesticides or fertilizers and naturally maintain temperature and humidity levels without the use of air conditioners or heaters. Thanks to the vineyard’s hemp-based cellar, Wine Spectator called Château Maris “one of the 5 most environmentally friendly wineries in the world.” 

Hemp can also be made into environmentally friendly biodegradable plastic, which Green Entrepreneur called “the next big thing in green.” Hemp bicycles already exist, including Erba‘s bamboo-hemp hybrid, and researchers continue to develop plans for next-gen models. Automobile legend Henry Ford introduced a bioplastic car body made in part with hemp in 1941, and certain car companies keep this tradition alive by using the outer stalk to replace carbon fiber and fiberglass. A few companies even introduced cars made almost entirely from hemp, including Calgary-based Motive Industries’ Kestrel (above) and the first hemp sports car, Renew, created by a former Dell executive. Speaking of the tech world, 3Dfuel uses the stalk to make 3D printing filament, while “hemp carbons make supercapacitors superfast,” with hemp-based carbon nanosheets outperforming standard supercapacitors by nearly 200 percent. 

As an energy source, the fibrous hemp stalks can be converted into a biofuel, which researchers describe as “an excellent alternative candidate for biofuel production” with higher cellulose content than other agricultural residues. According to the U.C. Santa Barbara’s The Daily Nexus, “About six percent of contiguous United States land area put into cultivation for [hemp] biomass could supply all current demands for oil and gas while maintaining a neutral carbon system.”

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