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Tech: University Of Toronto Prof Makes Hemp Auto Parts

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

Sain is a professor in U of T's faculty of forestry and the department
of chemical engineering, and has conceived of more things to do with
hemp than most would think possible.

"We look at the potential for hemp in automotive parts, sports
apparel, the furniture industry, aeronautics, and the medical
industry," Sain said.

Hemp can be used to make things from dashboards, canoes, and a number
of other things from the materials that he and his collaborators have
developed. Scientists hope that in the very near future they will be
able to make biomedical supplies, like blood bags, and even airplane
parts from hemp.

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

A chemical process allows Sain to extract long, thin strands of pure
starch 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 fibres, chemists make fibres with as few defects as possible,
making them much stronger.

By enmeshing hemp fibres into a matrix of glue, Sain has been able to
create plastics almost identical to conventional plastics, except 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.

Sain is particularly interested in producing construction materials
from a glue of wood resin interwoven with hemp fibres. 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 scientists have been
making biomaterials, or industrial materials made from natural products.

Sain is working towards improving the strength and durability of these
materials, and devising even more ways of using hemp for commericial
purposes. 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.

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 per cent 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, said 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," he said.

"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: Mon, 10 Nov 2003
Source: Peak, The (CN BC)
Copyright: 2003 Peak Publications Society
Contact: letters@mail.peak.sfu.ca
Website: http://www.peak.sfu.ca/