plastic of the future

The Ultimate Guide to Plastics of the Future Part 8 – Engineering Hemp Additives for Plastics

The performance characteristics of biomaterials have been known for generations. When Henry Ford built a car that used hemp materials in plastics to replace steel, the world was able to see a commercially viable application for these natural fibers. 

Unfortunately, only a few short years later, hemp was made illegal, and the industrial hemp supply chain disappeared. This left it, and other new biomaterials as an afterthought in the world of manufacturing as producers returned to the steady, known quantities of steel, wood, and glass. But today, the tables have turned.

For example, industrial hemp became federally legal with the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill. This opened the doors for hemp materials to find use cases across every industry imaginable. There are few companies aiming to build a reliable industrial hemp supply chain that supports manufacturers across industry.

Some industrial hemp companies are focused on markets like animal bedding and textiles. Research shows these markets may not be the best approach to creating a new American industrial hemp supply chain. For a raw materials supply chain to work, a huge pipeline of downstream demand must be in place. Our research shows that hemp engineered for plastics additives is just such a path. 

The Market Potential for Hemp Additives

Our research landed on the number 500,000,000,000. As in 500 trillion! As in 500 trillion pounds per year produced by the plastics industry! That’s an enormous number, and we see this as the most viable market penetration strategy for hemp additives, because:

  • Plastics is a raw material that is procured by most large manufacturers.
  • The world is looking for more sustainable solutions across raw material supply chains.

This told us that the plastics market was ripe for adopting hemp materials. But, when we started looking into the plastics market, the thinking was that bioplastics were the solution. This would have meant that the path was to convert hemp into a pure “bioplastic” that would be used as a total replacement to the plastic that’s already used across industries.

However, bioplastics as we discussed in an earlier chapter,  have a much steeper climb to adoption than biomaterials that are used as additives. Let us explain why. 

Some have tried selling pure bioplastics to the plastics industry and failed. For many reasons, the plastics industry just didn’t want (or wasn’t completely ready for) bioplastics. This industry has pre-existing relationships and supply chains that have existed for generations, and as most biomaterials companies are start-ups, it is unreasonable to assume that they would be overtaking the raw material supply chains of some of the largest manufacturers on the planet!

We realized that to successfully operate in the plastics industry, the biomaterials industry needs to figure out how to align with the plastics industry’s pre-existing relationships and supply chains. 

This was the inflection point that brings us to the current market position – To develop plastics additives derived from hemp and work together with plastics compounders to engineer them into today’s products. 

Hemp Is Clearly a Leader in Bio-Additives

The additives market was the clear answer to the problems within the plastics and manufacturing industry. Most companies know which resins they will procure over the next few years and what they’re open to changing are the additives that are used in those resins.

So, let’s look at engineering hemp materials that could be used as additives in commonly used plastics like polypropylene and polyethylene (the two most popular plastics used today). Research focuses on two bio-based components of hemp, the hurd and the fiber.  

Hemp hurd, which comes from the inner woody core of the stalk, can be used as volume fillers in plastics to replace toxic additives like talc and calcium carbonate.

Hemp fiber, which comes from the outer edges of the stalk, can be used as reinforcement agents in plastics to replace toxic additives like fiberglass and carbon fiber.

Research teams started by working with plastics compounders to better understand infusing plastics with hemp additives, and the results were extremely positive. By stepping up the concentration and micritization, they began unlocking new value propositions for the plastics industry by creating stronger, lighter, cheaper, and more sustainable compounded materials.  

Before this research, plastics compounders were having a hard time adding hemp above 10%-20% load rates. They knew that if hemp materials could only make up 10%-20% of the total plastics weight, then plastics companies wouldn’t be able to realize the full strength, weight, cost, and carbon benefits of hemp.

This brought science back to the drawing board to look at a wider adoption of hemp. They were no longer focused on just  simply providing non-reactive plastics additives, but were focused on engineering hemp materials as additives for a wide variety polymer compounding to add strength, volume and increase impact resistance, all while reducing costs. 

For compounders this meant:

 Creating an optimal input format so that hemp can be used at 20%-80%+ load rates.

  • Treating the hemp fibers with certain materials that bring out its performance properties.
  • Finding the additives that help the hemp materials bond to the plastic.
  • Finding the other additives that create performance properties that our customers want.
  • Diving into material innovation so that we could create graphene from hemp efficiently.

Engineering towards hemp additives means that the plastics compounders that receive these materials are not just getting a big bag of hemp fibers and hemp hurd. They are getting hemp materials that were engineered to a specific size, moisture content, surface area, aspect ratio, and input format that is designed for their existing equipment.

The engineered hemp materials are then mixed with specific additives that bring out performance properties and allow it to be loaded into plastic at above 80% load rates. This significantly improves performance over a traditional hemp material.

How Engineering at Heartland is Moving Hemp to the Forefront

From a first-person perspective, our engineering teams at Heartland are working with dozens of plastics compounders that have been very specific about their needs and problems. So, we have been able to modify the input format of hemp materials to endure we’re developing solutions that can be used across all their customer base in a variety of plastics.  

The focus began on commonly used thermoplastics and has quickly evolved into other types of polymers. We see partners focused on foams (polystyrene) and rubber (elastomers) that are testing our hemp materials for applications that will be used globally.

The expansion into other types of polymers is showing us that the additives market is much larger than just plastics. Foam and rubber applications are being developed over the next few months. And, within the next year, we will see supply chains that are focused specifically on hemp additives for the building materials and transportation infrastructure markets.

What’s the Future for Hemp? 

The world of additives extends into every raw material on the planet. Plastics, rubbers, foams, building materials, metals, and woods are just a few of the market sectors that hemp products will penetrate over the next few years. 

The ability to remove talc, calcium carbonate, glass fiber, and other additives from plastics is going to help us become more sustainable. The fact that it will require less plastic to produce the same amount of volume is icing on the cake. The toxic materials we’re replacing are heavy, carcinogenic, and require high carbon footprints in order to produce.

Virtually, every manufactured material you see around you right now can use hemp as an additive to enhance the performance properties and reduce the carbon footprint. It’s our responsibility to provide our world with the sustainable future that it needs and deserves. Hemp will prove to be the perfect material to achieve this goal. 

Join us in making a world out of hemp.

Heartland Team