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Hemp on the horizon

Natural materials can help achieve sustainability goals.

Advanced Textiles, Markets | Mar. 1, 2021 | By: Seshadri Ramkumar

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of natural products like cotton. As cotton farmers look for new market opportunities, natural fibers such as hemp (at right), flax, coir and jute offer advantages for certain high-performance applications. Photo: ©Leekaomeng, dreamstime.com.

COVID-19 has upended a way of life that we may have taken for granted. With the economy suffering as a result, and with the need to create growth and employment, the manufacturing sector has its work cut out for it. Effective use of resources, reviving the manufacturing sector and enabling self-sufficiency in advanced textile products are priority action items for the industrial fabrics sector in the U.S. 

The pandemic has also made us think about the value of sustainability, as well as its cost. In fact, the present pandemic has highlighted the importance of natural products, from cellulosic fibers or natural chemicals, to how we develop lifesaving materials. These interests can strengthen the sustainability industry, provided a balance between costs and benefits can be achieved.

Starting with the materials

By April 2020, promoting the positive attributes of cotton in destabilizing some viruses appeared to be a good thing to take on. This was based on research conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as far back as the late 1960s. The advanced textiles sector could take clues from such early research activities and look for new opportunities. 

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is currently working to standardize masks, considering filtration capability and breathability. Given the influence of these performance attributes, new standardization efforts should pay attention to material types and the structure of substrates.

Although it is generally believed that sustainability adds to cost, over time sustainable practices are going to benefit stakeholders and society overall. “Today, sustainable materials may demand a premium, but in the long run, price point may come down,” says sustainability expert and Google Scholar Dr. Dnyanada Satam. 

The higher price that sustainable and value-added materials demand will not be an issue for developing products that find applications in health care and the environmental industry. Given the importance of functionality in fields such as infrastructure, automotive and defense, performance attributes, requirements and cost factors must be carefully evaluated. If performance requirements are met by sustainable materials, their cost will be second on the list. 

Hemp: A new opportunity

Hemp is a bast fiber from the plant Cannabis sativa. These fibers are rich in lignin, and they are stiffer, an advantage for certain high-performance applications. This advantage should be exploited, rather than attempting to push it into markets that demand other performance attributes, such as softness and smoothness. When considering the innate attributes of fibers like hemp, flax, coir and jute, it’s clear they are instead well-suited for industrial applications. 

The passage of the 2018 Farm Bill enables the production of hemp with a regulation that its tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is less than 0.3 percent. About 46 states in the U.S. that have legalized growing hemp meet the regulation. Recently, the hemp-related association Vote Hemp has been lobbying for approval of hemp with elevated THC content up to 1.0 percent. (Hemp-based food products are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration [FDA].) 

Supporting factors include indications that a lesser quantity of resources will be required, and there is the possibility of cultivation under conditions similar to those for cotton. Right now, interest is high in CBD oil, so the initial attraction for farmers is the premium for CBD oil, as well as the fibers that serve as valuable by-products. 

“Cotton farmers are looking for diversifying risks and looking for new market opportunities. These are the reasons that farmers in the Carolinas and West Texas are looking at hemp,” says Dr. Kater Hake, vice president of agricultural and environmental research at Cary, N.C.-based Cotton Inc. 

In places where water is a precious commodity and when sales are dependent on exports, new and favorable opportunities are always welcome. This is true for crops like cotton in the U.S. 

“Cotton plantings represent the largest acreage plantings on the High Plains of Texas, averaging 4.2 million acres the last five years,” says Steve Verett, chief executive officer of Lubbock, Texas-based Plains Cotton Growers Inc. “Many High Plains cotton farmers plant other crops today for various economic and agronomic reasons. We welcome any new crop such as hemp that would provide our farmers a new economic opportunity to increase their profitability.” 

Challenges ahead

“Hemp is new to consumers and may replace synthetics in certain blends in developing consumer products,” says Hake. However, there are some challenges ahead and the knowledge base must be strengthened. 

Upstream fiber processing capabilities like retting, breaking of fibers, baling and transportation logistics must be enhanced. In the short term, applications where softness and smoothness are not critical can be explored, such as for industrial products. From a farmer’s point of view, diversifying crops as a conservation measure and looking for value-added opportunities support planting hemp. However, it needs to be done with care due to the THC regulation. 

Applications of hemp in fiber form can be categorized as either industrial products or consumer products. In the near term, the industrial market may be the best opportunity, as noted, because characteristics such as rigidity and stiffness may be beneficial. For example, durability, strength and performance characteristics of 100 percent hemp-based products in geotextile applications need thorough exploration. 

But while developing products, there should also be a focused development on the machinery used. The consumer textiles sector can look for hemp utilization in blends with cotton and other fibers, but this will involve an understanding of machinery and blend compatibilities. “Being natural” is the incentive. 

“All-natural fibers are great because of plastic pollution in food and water ecosystems,” says Hake.

Mechanical bonding nonwoven technologies are predominantly focused on fibers such as polyester, viscose, cotton and their blends. There is a need to build consortiums involving farmers, policy makers, machinery manufacturers and textile manufacturers to investigate future material and market possibilities. The nonwoven and technical textiles sectors are already looking to use hemp for developing industrial wipes, with the incentive being sustainability, but processing remains a challenge. 

For any market use, performance standards and requirements must be developed, which will keep associations like the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI) and the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA) busy. 

At the present time, the personal care market drives hemp cultivation, followed by food, industrial and consumer applications. Consumer textiles contribute about 14 percent of hemp sales, according to Jon Devine, senior economist at Cotton Inc. “Lack of downstream supply chain and import issues may influence the hemp sector,” Devine adds. 

Given that hemp sales to the apparel segment are miniscule, what influences cultivation? Being a sustainable fiber and opportunities in industrial markets will enable it to be an alternative fiber to synthetics, provided its performance characteristics are suitable. But the industry is new, and as such it offers enormous opportunity to research and explore new applications and markets. 

Seshardri Ramkumar, Ph.D., is a professor at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas.

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