Hemp plants show potential as sustainable fibre alternative
Hemp has been a source for materials, fibres and textiles for millennia. Now, an EU-funded project has used cutting-edge genomic approaches to boost hemp production, improve quality and advance scientific understanding of the crop. The research has led to new varieties and processes, providing a sustainable alternative to synthetic fibres and a wide range of other bio-based products.
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Hemp was once a key industrial crop for fibre materials in Europe, but was largely displaced by cotton and synthetic fibres during the industrial revolution. However, hemp requires less water and fewer agrochemicals than cotton, while providing superior quality fibre and oil. Could it be the ideal sustainable crop for bio-based materials?
To provide answers, the EU-funded MULTIHEMP project used cutting-edge genomic approaches to achieve rapid targeted improvements in hemp productivity and raw material quality. The team also advanced scientific understanding of gene-to-trait relationships in the crop.
The research provided the scientific and technical knowledge needed to consolidate and expand the market of renewable hemp materials. It also provided the basis for an integrated biorefinery to realise the full value of hemp crops, says project coordinator Stefano Amaducci of the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy.
In combination with innovations in agronomy, harvesting and processing methods, the project also delivered a range of sustainable bio-based products from improved hemp varieties.
Working from the level of molecular genetics through to end-product demonstration, our ambition was to develop an integrated hemp-based biorefinery in which improved feedstock is efficiently processed to provide fibre, oil, construction materials, fine chemicals and biofuels, using all components of the harvested biomass, explains Amaducci.
A project priority was to understand the physiological and genetic basis of traits relevant for the production of biomaterials, biochemicals and bioenergy. From this research, the project developed new hemp lines with modified fibre characteristics. The outcome was that one of the projects small business partners, the Fédération nationale des producteurs de chanvre, released a new commercial hemp variety.
A sophisticated crop model (GECROS) was developed that simulates hemp production across a range of contrasting environments and cultivation scenarios, continues Amaducci. The simulation model is being used to propose new plant varieties and aid breeding activities.
In addition, the project designed and developed a high-throughput fibre quality evaluation system to identify traditional quality characteristics such as fibre strength, and also innovative characteristics such as processability.
Demonstration trials, from cultivation through to end-product development, were run during the project to validate innovative steps in the production chain and to collect the data needed to perform environmental and economic assessments, says Amaducci.
The project has made some immediate impacts in terms of products. MULTIHEMP targeted innovative bio-based building materials, including a flock insulation system produced by project partner Ventimola. Fibre boards and a hemp-based wall concept was developed by CMF Technology.
In November 2016 a new industrial plant was opened by CMF Greentech a spin-off of CMF Technology to produce hemp-based building materials. And an ongoing collaboration between Ventimola and fellow MULTIHEMP partner Planète Chanvre is industrialising the flock insulation system.
Partners also developed applications in the cosmetics sector for hemp oil. Innovative applications for by-products, such as dust from fibre processing and threshing residues from seed harvesting, are also planned.
The research launched during MULTIHELP will also continue through two new projects funded through the Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking, concludes Amaducci