Fine future could be on for hemp – given right backing
Hemp fibre is attracting great interest from car manufacturers keen to use environmentally-friendly materials. But government strictures could mean UK growers miss this potentially large market.
John Hutchinson reports
CAR makers across Europe are looking at hemp fibre with increasing interest. Not only can it be used to make lighter, stronger and cheaper components – it is also more environmentally-friendly than alternatives.
"We are excited about the cost and weight advantages of using natural plant fibres," says Ford engineer Monika Sauerbier. "One project we are working on is an underbody shield for the Mondeo, which will weigh 2.8kg using hemp fibre, compared with 3.5kg using conventional materials."
Such uses are fuelled by research at Bangor Universitys BioComposites Centre, which was set up eight years ago to get plant fibres into industry.
Director James Bolton reckons hemp and flax fibres are potentially superior replacements for the glass-fibre matting used in glass reinforced plastic (GRP), which is widely used in industry.
Depending upon the resin it is combined with, hemp fibre can produce a composite material up to 33% lighter than GRP and over 20% stronger. It is also substantially cheaper and more pleasant to work with.
Hemp fibre can almost match the performance of carbon fibre and Kevlar, at as little as a 20th of the cost, adds Dr Bolton.
Hemp production in the UK is co-ordinated by Hemcore of Essex, which processes the 2200ha grown by Britains 80 licensed growers. Output is second only to France in Europe. But Germany is gearing up fast, says general manager John Hobson.
Current growers want to move with the market, but are exasperated at the British governments insistence that hemp is a pharmaceutical crop.
While British growers are subject to rigorous vetting and annual inspections, most European hemp farmers do not even need a licence. Furthermore, the Home Office is trying to double the licence fee from £240 to £480 per grower (Arable, 8 Aug).
Although varieties of hemp grown commercially are botanically identical to marijuana-producing Cannabis sativa plants, they are low in THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). "You would need to smoke a joint the size of a telegraph pole to get a high", says Dr Bolton.
"We are in danger of missing the boat if we dont step up hemp production," adds Edna Jones, who has grown 10ha (25 acres) of the crop on her Anglesey farm since last year. "If we dont do it, the Germans will."
Hemp fibre has a promising future for use in car components. But UKgrowers could miss out on the market unless the government relaxes its rules, say enthusiasts.
• Car makers keen to use in alternatives to GRP.
• Big potential market.
• Virtually no chemical input.
• Yield up to 8t/ha, £60/t.
• EU subsidy £560/ha.
• Concern over strict UK regulations.