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Hemp Bioplastic Research Awaits Stable Supply Chain, Economic Feasibility

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Hemp Bioplastic Research Awaits Stable Supply Chain, Economic Feasibility

Prototype dog throwing toys, created by Fargo, ND-based c2Renew, are made with hemp-based bioplastics. Photo: Chad Ulven

By Jean Lotus

From guitar picks, to 3D printing filament, to plastic dog throwing disks, prototype products made from hemp are showing the world the potential of industrial hemp in bioplastics. 

Scientists like Chad Ulven, a professor of mechanical engineering from North Dakota State University, are experimenting with more hemp-based composites for varying applications.

Ulven and his company Fargo, ND-based c2Renew, experiment with polylactic acid (PLA), a resin created from corn byproducts. It is formulated with organic fillers such as coffee and beer waste, flax, cotton, seed hulls, charred industrial carbon — and now industrial hemp.

“Hemp makes a pretty good biocomposite with a decent set of properties,” Ulven told Let’s Talk Hemp. 

Plastic engineers blend PLA with organically produced polyesters called polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) and add hemp’s natural fiber or the hemp stalk’s woody core (hurd) for reinforcement.

There’s lots of interest in hemp plastics for both injection-mold and 3D additive manufacturing, Ulven said. 

But Ulven says the supply chain for hemp processing is not strong enough to reliably get his company the materials they need. 

“One issue that remains is the need for a consistent supply for the hemp hurd,” Ulven said. “We need the hemp ground to a very fine particulate size and it’s a major challenge to find a consistent supplier that has the spec we need anytime we need it.

“We’ve been at this for eight years, and it always seems like we’re on the cusp of the next big thing,” Ulven added.

C2Renew provides raw hemp plastic pellet material for a hemp-based filament, produced by Fargo partner company 3D-Fuel, which can be melted and layered by a 3D printer to create a caramel-colored plastic surface flecked with organic specks

Ulven, who participated as a panelist at the virtual 4th Annual Industrial Hemp Summit in February, said the university encourages faculty to develop business ideas with a royalty provision. 

“I love straddling that valley with one foot in reality and one foot in the clouds,” he said. “Both are needed.”

As plastic waste fills the Earth’s landfills and oceans, Ulven says engineers are looking at new ways to make less harmful plastics. These include plastics that can disintegrate with the application of certain UV rays, or those that can be programmed with added enzymes to dissolve after a certain amount of time. 

But all of these products must be economically feasible to create.

“For any research we do here we complete a life-cycle analysis and technological and economic analysis before we even start,” Ulven said. “We want to know, sooner rather than later, is this going to be sustainable or practical?” 

The infrastructure to produce petroleum plastics grew up as a way to use byproducts of the oil industry — which has led to a culture of single-use disposable products. That can’t be changed overnight, Ulven noted.

He’d like to see the midwestern U.S. ethanol factories expanded into generating other products made from biobased inputs, he said. 

“There’s a multipronged approach we have to take to improve sustainability,” he said. “There’s ‘reduce-reuse-recycle’ and then there’s sourcing biobase for new plastics. But we can’t be adversarial [to the petrochemical plastic industry]. We have to work together in harmony,” he said. 

“That industry has been so huge and had such an impact on our daily lives. I tell my students to try and get through a single day without using plastic. It’s impossible,” he added.

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Jean Lotus is a Colorado-based award-winning journalist and hempreneur who writes about the American West and sustainable food and technologies.

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