Arrested Development

In the 1930s, it was not only the synthetic fibers that were being challenged by hemp industry. Mechanical Engineering magazine in 1937 called hemp “the most profitable and desirable crop that can be grown”; the following year Popular Mechanics magazine envisaged that new technologies and ready markets would make hemp the most valuable raw material in the world – "a billion dollar crop”. Popular Mechanics wrote that American farmers were promised a new cash crop with an annual value of several hundred million dollars, all because a machine had finally been invented that would solve a problem more than 6000 years old. The magazine explained to its readers that hemp is the standard fiber of the world, with great strength and durability, used to produce more than 5000 textile products, and the woody “hurds” remaining contain cellulose which can be used to produce 25,000 more products, from dynamite to cellophane.

Almost everything that isn't glass or metal - including paper, fabrics, plastics and concrete - can be made from hemp. Hemp stalk is a source of excellent building materials. Lime with hemp is firmer and 6 times lighter than cement. Hemp building materials are shock absorbent and mould/heat/fire/rot resistant. As a wall material, hemp is not only carbon neutral – it is carbon negative. It removes more carbon from the environment than it contributes.

It is possible to build a car body or a house almost entirely out of hemp, then use the hemp seed oil products to paint and power it. In the 1940s Henry Ford manufactured a hemp car that we would call “eco” or “green” by today’s standards. A decade earlier Ford Motor Company was creating charcoal fuel, creosote, methanol, and other chemicals out of hemp. Diesel bio-fuel engines have also been the invention of the beginning of the car industry. Rudolph Diesel produced his engine in 1896 assuming it would run off of vegetable and seed oils. The automotive industry was seen as a new branch of agriculture, which would produce a considerable amount of energy. Ford foresaw a future where cars were literally grown from the soil, where plastics from hemp were the building materials of almost all products, and where the fuel from hemp biomass provided the energy. In 1925, Ford claimed that ethyl alcohol was "the fuel of the future". This opinion that was widely shared in the automotive industry. "The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumach out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust -- almost anything," he said to to the magazine New York Times. "There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented. There's enough alcohol in one year's yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years."

Ford was inspired by the African-American inventor George Washington Carver and his idea that the world’s resources could be made  using raw materials provided by farmers and that plant cellulose could replace steel. In 1941, after 12 years of research, Ford presented the “automobile of tomorrow”, a plastic car “grown from soil”. It was made from 70% hemp, wheat straw, and sisal, with a 30% hemp resin binder. The car was much stronger,  lighter, safer and more fuel efficient than its steel counterpart. It weighed a third less and it demonstrated 10 times the impact strength. The car can be spotted in many documentaries and books about hemp, and in newspapers of the period. Ford himself proved how strong the car was by publicly striking the car with a hammer to show it wouldn't dent. The heavy steel hammer trial looks really impressive: after a hard blow the hammer rebounds from the hood as if the body were made of rubber, without leaving even the slightest damage. Documentary footage of this remarkable achievement is available in the Internet.

Ford recognized the vast economic resource provided by hemp. Not only would the company construct a “car that grows in the field” of hemp fibre, the engineers even ran the cars on ethanol made from hemp. Henry Ford asked why “we would want to use up the forests which were centuries in the making and mines which required ages to lay down, if we could get equivalent forest and mineral products from the annual growth of the fields”? It is worth adding that Ford can also be credited for introducing to the market a vast variety of products from soy beans. In the 1930s, researchers at Ford laboratories rediscovered this plant for the Western world and invented new ways to process soy and use it as food, oil, or textile – which resulted in a booming industry.

Today, parts made from hemp can still be found in many German cars; a large part of the hemp harvest in Germany is used by the local car industry. In 2008, Lotus announced a new type of “green car”, a hemp-based Eco Elise. Major car manufacturers GM, Chrysler, Saturn, BMW, Honda, Mercedes and Ford are using hemp composites in their new models.

~article by Sebastian Daniel


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