Both motor and aviation industries share the idea of using hemp as a substitute for carbon fibre or other materials.

Hemp: material for automotive and aviation industries

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Benito Díaz

Hemp has proved to be one of the most versatile organic materials on the planet. The capacity of the hemp fibre to produce paper and bioplastics makes this plant an alternative to other, more polluting sources. Nowadays, both motor and aviation industries share the idea of using hemp as a substitute for carbon fibre or other materials.

Cars

Scientists and engineers are on a race to develop an alternative substance to carbon fibre, given its high production cost. The target of this research is to produce a bioplastic substance with “memory” or that can be “programmed”, depending on the different functions that it would fulfil.

A kilogram of carbon fibre costs 20 times as much as producing a kilogram of steel. The production of alternative materials such as bioplastics would only cost twice as much. Their advantages over other insulating materials and plastics make it an exceptional material.

A lighter component makes it possible to build lighter cars, which in turn allows the saving of fuel during their use. Furthermore, hemp, being a fibre of vegetal origin, is renewable and has a lower energetic cost compared to other synthetic fibres. It is also cheaper and less harmful to the environment because it is biodegradable. Its exceptional resistance and its isolating properties have made its use in luxury cars in Europe something usual in the last several years in Europe.

For instance, French company Faurecia uses tons of bioplastics and biomaterials in the designs of models such as Alfa Romeo Giulia and Peugeot 308. These models incorporate hemp fibre in their dashboards and the door panels. Therefore, the dashboard of the Giulia is a 17% lighter than the standard one. The Peugeot 308’s dashboard is a 25% lighter. “Hemp produces a fibre that, mixed with plastic resins like polypropylene, turn into a very resistant and light material”, claims Pierre Demortain, sales director manager of sales and marketing of APM.

BMW and Mercedes are also using hemp bioplastic in luxury models. BMW has presented prototypes such as the electric car i3 City and the hybrid sports car i8. Even the prestigious brand Porsche has created the model 718 Cayman GT4 Club sport, that includes doors built with organic linen and hemp fibres along with the car body.

The contracts between hemp producers and “green” industries have allowed the regeneration of agriculture in several areas, like the area close to Washington in USA. Agrarian policies should take this in consideration.

Aviation

The same reasons that drive the automotive industry also draw the aviation and aerospace industries’ interest toward these unique features of hemp. In this area, the most recent research has focused on obtaining resins from sugars of non-alimentary sources.

New ideas are being explored in order to meet the industry’s needs, like integrating natural fibres to increase the mechanical properties and apply a superficial treatment that counterbalances its flammability level. After the synthesis of the different components, among which jute, linen and hemp are in competence, they are mixed with multi-functional epoxy resins using the mentioned sugars. The resulting combinations show results balanced between reduced flammability and a higher thermal stability, apart from an exceptional hardness and lightness, as claims the European Comission through a Cordis survey.

One of the first projects destined to the general public is being carried out by the Hempearth Group company. They are building the first plane in the world made entirely out of hemp fibre. This aeroplane includes bioplastics in the walls and seats in the plane and all the way to the wings and cushions. Founded in 2012 in Canada, Hempearth’s catalogue includes rowing paddles, oils, flowers and even surf boards that are produced using hemp. The plane has a wingspan of 11 meters and works with biofuel.

Henry Ford’s hemp car

The multiple uses of bioplastics can seem to us to be groundbreaking, but their qualities were already well-known in the 40s decade, when Henry Ford decided to opt for them. In August 1941, Ford presented an automobile prototype with the body made out of bioplastics derived from hemp. He did so in a car show close to the Ford offices in Dearborn, Michigan. The original formula of these bioplastics was lost, reinforcing the views of those who claim that they were actually made from soy fibres.

After the prohibition of hemp in the USA and the destruction of the prototype, the production was halted and quickly forgotten. Only the words of Henry Ford remain: “The fuel of the future will come from the sumac found on the side of the road, or the apples, or the grass or the sawdust… almost from anything. There is fuel in each piece of vegetable matter that can be fermented. There is enough alcohol in an acre of potatoes to power the machine that cultivates the fields for more than a hundred years”.