Hemp seems to have a good chance of becoming legal, with the Senate version of the Farm Bill containing a provision that removes it from the controlled substances list, and broad support coming from both Democratic and Republican sides of the aisle.
That's exciting news for researchers who have been delving into new uses for hemp — already an $820 million dollar market in the United States, despite the scarcity of domestic sources of material.
Composite materials specialist Dr. Chad Ulven, with North Dakota State University, is among those excited about the prospects for legalized hemp.
Ulven has been conducting research into alternative uses for natural fibers, and has a company that designs and produces custom bio-composites as well. He's a member of the Advanced Materials and Composites Research Group, a multi-disciplinary team that develops advanced composites of synthetics and agricultural materials for new and innovative uses.
Among their projects has been development of a biodegradable soil sensor, development of a light-weight carbon fiber tree stand and development of a total ankle replacement.
Ulven has been focusing on a fiberglass substitute. It turns out, the natural fiber has characteristics that make it similar to fiberglass in terms of strength.
In fact, if treated properly, the hemp substitute can last longer than fiberglass.
Or, if you prefer, it can be treated with a different resin that will allow it to be biodegradable.
"You can tailor the resin," Ulven said. "So you can go either way."
The hemp substitute is also half the density of fiberglass, so could help make cars lighter and more fuel efficient.
And a bonus, Ulven said, is that the hemp is capturing some carbon dioxide as it grows. Using the fibers thus locks up carbon dioxide in a new material. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Increased emissions have been implicated in climate change.
"So both from an economic and environmental standpoint, that is why one would want to use these fibers," Ulven said.
Legalizing hemp would make such uses as Ulven is researching economic, too.
"Transport costs of such a low-density material eat any economic profit," Ulven said. "It has to be domestically grown and sourced to make products domestically."
Right now, there are companies making materials from different flax and hemp fibers — sometimes at a loss — just to try and create a market. Those types of businesses would be greatly helped if a more readily available supply of hemp became available, Ulven said.
To really make things happen, however, it will take many processing facilities, strategically located near hemp production, so that the fibers can be processed into usable forms for composites.
"Right now, there's only one commercial facility that can supply in quantity domestically," Ulven said.
That plant is called Sunstrand, and it's based in Louisville, Kentucky. It also has a plant in South Carolina and one in Alberta, Canada.
"We'd need many more Sunstrand plants, or like plants, all over," Ulven said.
But for many more processing facilities to happen, there's also one more big factor that would be necessary.
"We need to improve adoption of the natural fibers," Ulven said. "(Businesses) don't want to commit to adopting natural fibers for components until they know there's an appreciable volume they can rely on. So it's kind of a chicken-egg thing. They don't want to commit money to development unless they know volume will be there. So that is why we need good strategic plans for fiber processing plants."
Hemp business Journal has so far estimated growth in the hemp market could reach $1.9 billion in the U.S. by 2022.
Legalizing hemp, however, would help remove uncertainty about supply, as well as expense of a key manufacturing component, helping move forward innovative uses of hemp. That could potentially create an even bigger market for hemp than the health foods and organic fiber industry have suggested.