Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Author: Jennifer Campbell, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Friday, October 24, 2003
Copyright: 2003 The Ottawa Citizen
Contact: [email protected]
Cheap and flexible hemp fibres are making their way into more and more cars. As Jennifer Campbell explains, this is good news for producers of Ontario's homegrown crop.
Drive a Mercedes, Chrysler or General Motors product? If so, it's possible you have Ontario cannabis on board.
But don't worry -- no one's accusing you of having drugs in your glove box or trunk. Instead, your hemp probably takes the form of a door panel, or some similar interior component.
Hemp is being heralded as a miracle fibre. With more than 25,000 uses, its seeds or fibre can be found in clothing, paper, lip balm, paint and salad dressing.
And cars. More and more manufacturers are using natural fibres in the composites they use to form the basis of automobile interiors. Flax and kenaf are two popular fibres for this, but hemp is coming on strong. Above all, it's economical. It's also flexible and easy to use.
Enter Geof Kime, an Ontario engineer who grew up on a farm. As owner and founder of a company called Hempline, Mr. Kime finds himself in an enviable position as Ontario's hemp pioneer. He says he was the first person to produce hemp in "modern times" in North America when, in 1994, he planted a 10-acre test plot with his original business partner Joe Strobel.
It's an industrial-grade hemp that contains only minute traces of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the intoxicating substance in marijuana. Although it was illegal to grow hemp in Canada at the time, the two entrepreneurs secured a special permit from Health Canada after Mr. Strobel determined kenaf wouldn't grow well in Ontario and the two wanted to try an alternative.
"We learned that first year that there are things you can screw up and we also learned a lot of positive things," says Mr. Kime, who is based in Delaware, Ont., near London. "We learned that Ontario had all the right conditions to grow good qualities and high yields of hemp fibre."
For Mr. Kime, southern Ontario's perfect hemp climate means big business. In the mid-'90s, while he was devoting his energy to getting the Canadian government to sanction hemp-growing (it took five years to get that far), Mercedes-Benz was starting to introduce European-grown hemp into its interiors.
The timing worked well for Mr. Kime, who now is growing as much hemp as his operation's infrastructure will allow. North American manufacturers followed Mercedes' lead. They now want it, and he's conveniently situated close to the U.S. border. To add to the attraction, he is the supplier of a commodity that isn't yet legal to grow in the United States.
"It's not entirely new," Mr. Kime says. "It's been in vehicles here for three or four years, but it's something that people don't know much about."
He sends his hemp to suppliers that then sell it to the automotive industry. For that reason, he's not sure exactly where it ends up, although he's certain there's Delaware hemp in the Chrysler Sebring.
The manufacturers aren't promoting its use because the primary motivation is cost rather than public relations, Mr. Kime says.
"The reason they're looking at natural fibres like hemp and flax is that they're cost-effective and they perform well," he says. "Compared to glass fibre, the cost of production is lower but the strength and ratio is roughly comparable so we can get excellent mechanical properties at a much lower price."
Hemp is typically less than half the price of glass and its light weight is also a benefit. To a smaller extent, manufacturers are drawn to the environmental benefits, a plus that played a much bigger role in Europe where, by 2005, every vehicle part has to be capable of being completely recycled. It is possible to recycle glass fibre, but hemp is much easier -- although the system to do so isn't ready yet in North America.
"It's as much the infrastructure to tear cars apart and reuse the materials as it is the materials themselves," Mr. Kime says.
Nevertheless, he's betting the market will keep growing and to that end, he's financing an expansion. If an average door panel requires at least a kilogram of fibre, and many vehicles have four doors, you're up to 4.5 kg of fibre per vehicle. Considering there are 15 million cars produced annually in North America, the numbers add up to "a heck of a lot of material," Mr. Kime says.
"The automotive industry has come on strong and come on early," he adds. "It's big business and gearing up to supply it is something we're really focusing on. There's a good business opportunity there to be capitalized on."
Hemp may soon also be found on the outside of cars.
Until now, materials reinforced with hemp were not strong enough for use as body panels. But two Canadian researchers, Mohini Sain and Bhuwan Prasad of the University of Toronto, have discovered that heating hemp to more than 180 degrees leaches out the natural glues in hemp and makes its fibres much stronger.
According to the Oct. 11 issue of New Scientist magazine, the treated fibres could be used in hemp-reinforced plastics that would be as strong as fibreglass composites, at less cost.
Organic materials are hardly new in car construction.
Henry Ford was an early proponent of soybeans as an ingredient for interior fittings and even body parts, prompting jokes about the farmer who left his Model A too close to the goat pen.
More recently, cotton fibres reinforced the body of the notorious East German Trabant, and even the sophisticated Chevrolet Corvette contains high-density balsa wood grown in Ecuador. The light, strong material is sandwiched between layers of fibreglass in the sports car's floor.
Now, Ford is considering getting on hemp's bandwagon. At a recent Winnipeg conference, Ellen Lee, a plastics technical specialist from Ford Motor Co., gave a presentation on the use of hemp fibre in car parts.
She told the Winnipeg Free Press the company is still researching whether the material will meet industry specifications, but she said "it's potentially a billion-dollar industry."
For Geof Kime, that sounds as sweet as the taste of ice cream made from hemp seed.
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