Industrial hemp is a material with huge potential. In future it will be possible to use hemp fibres in many industrial sectors. Badische Naturfaseraufbereitung GmbH is a company that processes hemp fibres, thus forming a link between agriculture and industry.
The speech therapist Bernd Frank's ambition was to find a way to earn a living that was ecologically viable and this is how he came to set up Badische Naturfaseraufbereitung GmbH (BaFa) in 1996. "I've been deeply interested in ecological issues since the early 1980s. And in 1995, when it became clear that the cultivation of hemp for industrial purposes would once again be made legal from 1996 onwards, I decided to enter the sector that links agriculture and industry."
In early 1996, the German government legalised the cultivation of hemp for industrial purposes in Germany. Ten years later, in 2006, the overall cultivation area used for hemp accounted for 1,355 hectares (source: Deutscher Naturfaserverband e.V.). It is estimated that the cultivation area will increase to about 2,000 ha in 2009. Frank's company is set to license 1,300 ha of land in Germany and France for the cultivation of hemp in 2009.
Industrial hemp, like flax and cotton, is one of the so-called fibre plants and it forms bastfibres just like flax. In Baden-Württemberg, hemp is harvested in August and September using industrial hemp harvesting machines. These were developed by BaFa in cooperation with the companies Götz Landtechnik and Deutsch-Fahr Landmaschinen and the State Institute of Plant Production in a project funded by the FNR Agency for Renewable Research. The machines have been in use since 2000 enabling the simultaneous harvesting of hemp seeds and hemp straw. The machines are currently being tested in numerous European countries.
A major advantage of hemp is that it can be grown without using pesticides because the strong foliation suppresses the growth of weeds. According to Frank, hemp is the strongest natural fibre. Hemp owes its strength to its enormous growth rate, growing up to four metres in height in around three months. The stable bast fibres that grow around the woody interior of the stalk support the stalk of the plant. "These natural fibres can now be used in many different technical processes," explains Frank.
Hemp products are suitable for many different industrial applications. "The fibres are mainly sold to the automotive industry," said Frank explaining that they are used for making door panels. "Door panels are made using hemp in combination with thermoplastic elastomers such as polypropylene (PP) and duroplasts such as epoxy resin. Nowadays, natural polymers such as polylactic acid (PLA) and lignin are also used for the same purpose," said Frank. In contrast to glass fibres, natural fibres weigh much less at the same time as having the same stability. Another advantage of hemp materials is its CO2-neutral disposal. "Hemp-fortified injection moulding is new on the market. This process enables the production of injectable granulates. The mixtures used for this purpose also consist of fossil and biological polymers," said Frank.
The insulation industry uses hemp fibres to replace glass and stone wool. In cooperation with a company called Hock, BaFa has developed a natural insulation material known as Thermo-Hemp®. "Here, the hemp fibres are combined with a polyester bicomponent fibre. There is another product which uses PLA as binding fibre. This is a completely biogenic insulation material," said Frank. BaFa is continuing its research into insulation materials and hopes to be able to launch a slightly tougher insulation plate in the near future. This will be used as a heating network system in walls and can be used in the renovation of old buildings. In order to advance the development of further innovative products, BaFa is working closely with the Fraunhofer Institute of Chemical Technology (Fraunhofer ICT) and the Nova Institute.
The hemp shives are also used, for example, as animal litter or in the construction industry in combination with chalk as floor screed or insulation plaster. Hemp seeds are also used in the food industry, where they are turned into hemp oil or in the animal feed industry for the production of bird and fish feed. By marketing virtually the entire hemp plant, i.e. fibres, shives and seeds, BaFa has been able to considerably increase the economic efficiency of hemp cultivation.