EPA Funding Fuels Sustainable Hemp Pulping Method

by | Oct 15, 2020

Hemp and sustainability should go hand in hand, and thanks to a researcher from the University of California, a new sustainable method for hemp pulping is on its way to helping the hemp industry become more compatible with environmental preservation and protection.

Contemporary hemp pulping methods generally produce excess waste and are not as environmentally friendly as most people imagine. In an era where burgeoning industries choose to be part of the solution or contribute towards environmental threats, fueling the hemp industry with green initiatives is the key to a long, healthy, and sustainable cannabis and hemp industry.

The hemp plant has an extensive range of applications. While this drives the industry, the industry itself is still playing catchup, with fledging infrastructures in place for the various processes. The industry is currently producing excessive amounts of waste and uses extensive resources when working with the hemp plant, mainly due to unevolved methods contributing to environmental pollution.

The hemp plant has various uses and applications, but with all these uses comes a plethora of different production processes, including pulping methods.

Researcher Charles Cai has been working with a hemp pulping method to streamline the production process and minimize the required resources.

What began as an invention to turn plant waste into biofuel has become an important milestone for the hemp industry. Associate research professor from the University of California Riverside’s College of Engineering Center for Environmental Research and Technology, Charles Cai, developed and patented a solution that meets a hemp industry gap. The solution is a hemp pulping technology that aims to offer improvements in the following ways:

  • Uses a natural solvent
  • No toxic waste
  • Emits zero CO2

Add to this that the solution helps to use almost 100% of the hemp plant and simplifies the process by shaving off production steps and expensive equipment, and all forms of the hemp plant matter can be transformed into marketable components. A solution that increases profit potential while decreasing production costs and waste?

How Does the Pulping Method Work?

Hemp may be known for its sustainable characteristics and applications, but the process it takes to harness the plant can be detrimental to the environment. Enter the CELF system.

The CELF method uses water and tetrahydrofuran (a natural substance) to break down the plant matter. Using the CELF method, the plant doesn’t have to be exposed to extremely high temperatures to break down the lignin. The hemp is divided into four parts: extractions, sugars, pulped fiber, and lignin. According to Cai, all four parts can be transformed into marketable components, as nothing is destroyed in the pulping process. This is in stark contrast to the more commonplace hemp processing methods that produce excessive waste, including black liquor, which has to be treated or burnt before being disposed of.

What Makes the CELF Method Superior?

The most commonly used method for hemp production is called the Kraft process. Hemp needs to be sorted, sieved, retted, and dried (to name just a few) when using the Kraft method, while the CELF method requires none of this extensive handling. The CELF method promises to return some value to the farmer by cutting out tiresome and wasteful steps.

Unfortunately, using the Kraft process also adds environmental strain to an already pressurized topic. With current methods, the hemp plant usually has to undergo extensive retting, heating, and other processes that produce wastewater runoff, waste plant matter, and greenhouse gases (mostly when the black liquor is burnt before disposal).

Furthermore, the CELF method promises to make all parts of the hemp plant commercially applicable. The fiber can be applied in the construction industry, the lignin for bioplastics, the sugars added in the food industry while the extractions (cannabinoids, terpenes, etc.) are self-explanatory.

However, despite making the Forbes 30 under 30 list for this invention in 2017, Cai did not plan on honing in on the hemp industry. Cai designed the CELF (Co-solvent Enhanced Lignocellulosic Fractionation) almost a decade prior, and the focus was on converting general plant matter into biofuel. He has since gone on to launch his company, which focuses on this type of biofuel.

But the hemp initiative is precisely what caught the attention of the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), from whom he and his team received a grant of $75,000. The EPA P3 (EPA’s People, Prosperity, and Planet Program) granted the funding so that the group of researchers can improve the existing pulping method for a greener and more sustainable hemp industry.

With an emphasis on using what Mother Nature provides, Cai and his team refuse to use chemicals that do not stem from nature and aim to improve the process so that no part of the plant is wasted.

The project has received both national and industry-specific interest. The future of hemp depends on sustainable and intelligent developments such as these- especially if it can bring production costs down, maximize profits, and replace production with a more environmentally friendly option. Cai believes that the entire industry’s economics can change by using the whole plant and minimizing waste, and his invention is the way to do this- a sentiment that the EPA shares.

The future is green, and funding for initiatives such as these could give the hemp industry the sustainable infrastructure it needs.