Humanity has made more than a handful of blunders. Not realizing the potential of industrial hemp belongs on the list of worst mistakes made in the last 100 years. It seems too incredible to be true, but hemp IS stronger than steel, and significantly so. Hemp is also the ideal substitute for trees when making paper. At least 75% of all paper made in the United States pre-1833 came from hemp.
Government studies from over 100 years ago found that an acre of hemp equated to four acres of trees. At that time, many people predicted that all paper could come from hemp by the 1940s. This would have meant minimal cutting down of trees. One benefit would be a far healthier planet for generations to come.
Instead came the so-called War on Marijuana. It was a means of solidifying the fortunes of William Randolph Hearst and the DuPonts, among others. Yet hemp isn’t useful for making paper only. In fact, 80% of all fabrics, linen, clothes, and textiles consisted of hemp. That was, until the development of the Cotton Gin in the 1790s.
For all the remarkable properties of the hemp plant; however, few are more impressive than its strength. When you hear that hemp is stronger than steel, it is NOT hyperbole; it is a fact!
Why Is Hemp Stronger Than Steel?
When measuring strength, we fall back on one of two methods. The first involves cracking and breaking, like a dry tree branch which is stiff and doesn’t bend. You need to apply a significant amount of pressure to have an impact. Ultimately, the branch cracks and breaks rather than bending.
The second method of measuring strength is bending and mending. When you put a lot of pressure on certain materials, they will bend rather than breaking. Then you can potentially mend them.
It takes twice as much pressure to crack and break hemp than steel. Furthermore, hemp ‘bends and mends’ approximately six times better than steel.
We are not saying that the hemp plant is more challenging to bend than steel. What we are saying is that hemp fibers have a better strength to weight ratio than steel. Hemp is also far cheaper to manufacture.
You may have heard about how Henry Ford created a plastic hemp car ten times stronger than steel. Of course, this isn’t the full story. Ford’s famous ‘hemp car’ consisted only of a small amount of hemp.
Ford’s dream was to create a vehicle from farm products during the Great Depression to help out America’s farmers. At the time, the car was an estimated 300 pounds lighter than the steel cars of the day. In a 1941 interview, Ford said his car would be lighter, safer, and less expensive than his other cars.
Other materials used included wheat, soybeans, and corn. There were promotional videos that showed the car’s incredible strength, but sadly, it never came to fruition.
The Modern Hemp Car
Three-quarters of a century after Ford’s idea came the modern version of his vision. In 2017, Renew Sports Cars unveiled its carbon-neutral car made from hemp. The company specializes in making automobiles with woven hemp bodies.
On the TV show, Jay Leno’s Garage, the famed talk show host got to take the car for a test drive. Renew used 100 pounds of cannabis to make the body of the sports car. It is lighter than fiberglass and extremely resistant to dents. Both Leno, and the founder of Renew, Bruce Dietzen, hit the car with their fists. The vehicle handled the punishment easily.
The Canna 225 provides 225 horsepower and weighs just 2,500 pounds. The Canna 525 is 300 pounds heavier and uses a 525-hp LS crate engine. You can customize these cars to run on biofuel too.
Hemp Is Stronger Than Other Manmade Materials, Too
Thomas Edison stumbled upon a new super-strength material in 1879 during a light-bulb filament experiment. Edison heated splinters of bamboo to incredible temperatures. The result was strands of carbon capable of withstanding tremendous heat. The material could also conduct electricity.
Fast forward to 1958, and Roger Bacon expanded on the experiment by creating ‘whiskers’ with triple the stiffness of steel. They also had ten times the tensile strength. It was eventually manufactured into carbon fiber. However, hemp has an even greater tensile strength!
The journal Science ‘discovered’ a new material in 2004. Known as graphene, it is a form of carbon that exists as a sheet with an atom’s thickness. It is approximately 100 times stronger than steel, and it conducts electricity better than copper. All it takes is 1% of graphene mixed into plastics to provide conductivity.
Graphene is a ‘super-material,’ yet hemp can mimic many of its best properties. For example, waste fibers from hemp crops could be turned into high-performance energy devices. At an American Chemical Society meeting in 2014, a team of researchers produced the results of a remarkable experiment. They subjected cannabis bark to high temperatures to turn the material into carbon nanosheets. They created supercapacitors at a level equal to, or greater than, graphene.
For the record, supercapacitors are energy storage devices that transform the way your electronics are powered. Old-fashioned batteries store reserves of energy and drip-feed it slowly. In contrast, supercapacitors discharge their full load. This process makes them ideal for machines such as electric cars where quick bursts of power are essential.
Graphene makes excellent supercapacitors but is incredibly expensive to produce. Hemp is unable to do everything graphene can. However, it works just as well for energy storage and costs a few hundred dollars per ton.
Final Thoughts on Hemp vs. Steel
We continue to waste millions of dollars trying to find new super-materials. Meanwhile, there is a natural alternative growing readily around us. The Farm Bill of 2018 legalized the growth of industrial hemp in the United States. This is great news going forward.
It is about time that America followed the lead of countries that cultivate hemp readily. Even our neighbors, Canada, are getting in on the act as their textile industry grows.
Industrial hemp is inexpensive to produce, and it takes just a few months for it to grow. The plant has an incredible number of applications, and it is about time we used them. It seems astonishing to learn that hemp fibers are superior to steel on a strength to weight ratio.
It is something we have known for a very long time. It is a tragedy that hemp has remained relatively unused over the last century or so. The Farm Bill of 2018 will see a revival of industrial hemp growth. It is very much a case of ‘better late than never.’