Hemp Fibers Uniquely Suited for Advanced Carbon Uses

By Trevor Yahn-Grode, Data Analyst, New Frontier Data

According to research carried out by Dr. David Mitlin and his team at the University of Texas at Austin, hemp fibers show promising market potential for use in advanced carbon materials.

Advanced carbons include the much-hyped graphene, a material with well-documented potential to disrupt a range of established and emerging industries. Yet, Mitlin encourages investors, producers, and marketers to think of broader and more immediate market opportunities for hemp carbons.

“People say, well, we can capture this giant graphene market with hemp”, Mitlin notes. “I suggest the bigger opportunity is for hemp to take a big chunk out of the advanced carbon market.” The advanced carbon market spans a huge range of industrial applications, including water purification, energy storage, carbon capture technologies, HVAC filters, and more. Water purification, especially, has taken on heightened importance considering an ongoing environmental crisis and decreasing access to clean water in the developing world.

Advanced carbon products require large amounts of precursor material. Hemp is an ideal precursor for these products due to the ease and scale with which it can be produced, and given its relatively low lignin content compared to alternatives. Some competing precursor materials like coal and wood carry with them serious environmental concerns, while others, like coconut, cannot be produced domestically at scale.

Current manufacturing constraints mean that most advanced carbon products must be manufactured using batch methodologies, as opposed to continuous production, but the relative ease of pyrolyzing hemp fiber lends itself to scale — a tantalizing promise for the industry. The costs of retooling existing facilities to handle hemp fiber are not insignificant, but in principle that can be accomplished relatively easily. Furthermore, the products can be manufactured using low-quality waste fiber, potentially providing an outlet for substandard fiber from processors nationwide.

Despite the promise, the low yield (10%-15%) of converting hemp into advanced carbons means that such products will not truly be viable until the hemp fiber industry reaches critical scale; even then, significant amounts of capital will need to be allocated to R&D and product development before market opportunities can be realized. Still, the extant research is evidence that there is still much to be learned – and gained – from researching the hemp plant. As 80 years of science and innovation spill past the dam of prohibition, hemp’s future looks increasingly bright.