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Hemp is an extremely flexible material with a myriad of uses and applications. In the fashion industry, businesses use the plant to create shirts, organic wallets and bags. While in commercial sectors, the material is turned into natural cordage and extracted for its flavorful oil.

In the past few years, scientists from Clarkson University have been working on a new way to use hemp. Originally discovered by the University of Alberta’s National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT), researchers were able to turn hemp fibers into supercapacitors- a need normally met by graphene. The hemp used to create the unconventional energy storage cells is legal and only contains minimal levels of THC, or the psychoactive compound normally associated with medicinal cannabis.

“Health Canada defines hemp as products of Cannabis Sativa which contain less than 0.3 percent THC, whereas US law defines hemp as all parts of any Cannabis Sativa plant containing no psychoactive properties, except for defined exceptions,” highlighted Matthew Price from Medical Jane.

Designed for Mass Commercial Markets

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Graphene, an atomically strong material that is 100 times stronger than steel, and conducts electricity at higher efficiency rates than copper, can be applied to transform everyday electronics and machines. The problem is, the carbon monolayer is expensive to produce, which severely limits its adoption in industrial sectors (it cost roughly $2,000 per gram). By comparison, using converted hemp fibers as an alternative for graphene costs less than $500 per ton to manufacture.

The process of turning hemp into a superior nanomaterial involves “cooking” the leftover bark until it turns into carbon nanosheets, a technical process called hydrothermal synthesis. “The resultant graphene-like nanosheets possess fundamentally different properties, such as pore size distribution, physical interconnectedness, and electrical conductivity—as compared to conventional biomass-derived activated carbons,” explained Dr. David Mitlin, a professor at Clarkson University.

Industrial Applications

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It’s important to consider that hemp cannot function exactly like graphene, and is only a viable alternative for energy storage applications. Mainstream supercapacitors are currently being used to regulate power supply from batteries, due to their ability to store large amounts of energy for short periods. An example of its presence in live environments is wind turbines. In such settings, supercapacitors are applied to manage sporadic, inconsistent power generated by wind. It can also be used to reduce energy waste in electric and hybrid cars during regenerative braking.

Other applications for the energy cells include load leveling, handheld gadgets and medical devices. Many institutions recognize the benefits of scaling the production of hemp for such purposes. Recently, a bill designed to bolster the efforts of Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture in creating pilot research programs for industrial hemp was set in motion. Other states with similar initiatives include Colorado, Virginia, Kentucky and Minnesota. In other parts of the world, such as China and Canada, the crop is widely cultivated for commercial fabrics.

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