From Cannabis To Carburetor

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U Of T Prof Makes Autoparts From Hemp

Amid the clutter of textbooks, journals, papers and reams of notes in the
office of Dr. Mohini Sain sit a car door, a bus seat, an instrument panel, a
deck plank, and a car bumper-all of them made from hemp.

Dr. Sain is a professor in U of T's Faculty of Forestry and the Department
of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry, and has conceived of more
things to do with hemp than you can think of to do with the strongest
(mechanically speaking) of hemp plants, cannabis. "We look at the potential
for hemp in automotive parts, sports apparel, the furniture industry,
aeronautics, and the medical industry," Dr. Sain said. You can make skis,
dashboards, bumpers, I beams, cross ties for railroad tracks, canoes, tennis
rackets, basketball stands, car door panels, roof shingles and a myriad of
other things from the materials that he and his collaborators have
developed. And hopefully, in the very near future, we will be able to make
biomedical supplies, like bloodbags, and even airplane parts from hemp.

"Our direction is to move away from fossil fuel based synthetics to more
natural alternatives," said Dr. Sain.

How does he manage to turn fluffy green cannabis plants into car siding
capable of withstanding a full-on impact? A long chemical process allows Dr.
Sain to extract long, thin strands of pure starch, or cellulose (a long
chain of sugar) from hemp. In the plant, many of these strands put together
make a hemp fiber. By first isolating individual strands and then
reassembling them back into fibers, chemists make fibers with as few defects
as possible, making them much stronger. They can also control the length and
diameter of the strands-the longer and thinner the strand, the stronger it
is.

By enmeshing hemp fibers into a matrix of glue, Dr. Sain has been able to
create plastics almost identical to conventional plastics (save for their
brown colour). The glue could be synthetic, or it could be natural-there are
already many bioplastics made from soy or corn being used. Dr. Sain is
particularly interested in producing construction materials from a glue of
wood resin interwoven with hemp fibers. The wood resin could easily come
from leaf litter and forest floor debris, he said. Fewer trees would have to
be cut down than are needed to support our current construction business.

The technology is not entirely new-for years Dr. Sain and many other
scientists have been making biomaterials, or industrial materials made from
natural products. You may even have already ridden in a car made with hemp
parts. Dr. Sain's fiberglass-like hemp material has been used in car door
siding for two years now. Transit seats made from 100 per cent hemp with a
polyester glue are already in widespread use. "The first generation of
biomaterials has already been in use for several years. For example, in the
construction industry, if you go to places like Home Hardware, you can find
decking materials made from synthetic plastics combined with wood fibers or
rice husks," said Dr. Sain.

Dr. Sain is working towards improving the strength and durability of these
materials, and devising even more ways of using hemp commericially. He hopes
that he will be able to create steel interfused with hemp. Weaving hemp
fibers into steel makes the metal stronger, which would allow auto
manufacturers to lower the thickness of the steel they use. Not only would
this mean using less steel, but it would also mean making a much lighter car
that would use far less fuel, costing less for everyone and creating less
pollution. Win-win.

With such a development you could literally build a car from the inside out
with hemp-the steel frame and body, hubcaps, bumpers, instrument panel,
seats, and seat coverings all could be made with hemp.

Dr. Sain is also optimistic that within a few years we will have blood bags
and other biomedical supplies made from hemp. Syringes and gloves and other
medical gear, by and large, cannot be reused, but ones made from hemp would
be 100% biodegradeable. He and his associates will first have to ensure
however that these biodegradeable materials will be safe for human use. No
matter how fond you are of environmentally friendly alternatives, an IV bag
that slowly disintegrates into your drip and your veins is not a pleasant
thought.

Hemp alternatives not only make environmental sense, says Dr. Sain, they
make economic sense. "We look to make environmentally and economically
sustainable materials." By creating industrial products with hemp, "you can
bring some of this value back to the farmers who grow the plants, and then
you can develop some small industries and employ some people to make these
materials. You not only give added value to the farmers, you also get
additional employment.

"This is a public issue. That's why we are scientists-we are interested in
accepting the challenges and finding solutions. We meet the concerns of the
public."


Pubdate: Thu, 30 Oct 2003
Source: Varsity, The (CN ON Edu)
Copyright: 2003 The Varsity
Contact: editor@thevarsity.ca
Website: The Varsity