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From Site Selection magazine, May 2024

A Global Test to Explore the Benefits of Hemp

Over 10,000 years ago the hemp plant was one of the first to be used to produce fiber.
Photo by ArtistGNDPhotography: Getty Images

by Alexis Elmore

ver the course of one year, researchers in Italy’s Sicilian region aim to revolutionize the ways in which industrial hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) can provide a sustainable solution to materials commonly used across global industries.

Although botanically related to another cannabis sativa species known as marijuana, hemp holds less than 0.3% of the psychoactive component tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). In comparison, the entirety of the hemp plant provides a variety of uses conducive to everyday life around the world.

Administered by the Sicily Rural Development Program comes an innovative new initiative in which five municipalities — Caltanissetta, Catania, Messina, Palermo and Ragusa — will be locations for cultivating new hemp varieties, harvesting methods and technologies. This region of Italy’s coastal plains and river valleys uniquely position Sicily to support long-term hemp growth during prime spring and summer months.

Known as “Canapa New Tech” or “New Tech Hemp,” the program, which runs from June 2024 through June 2025, will be funded by both the European Union and the Sicilian Region.

The New Tech Hemp program will be managed by innovative agricultural startup MillaSensi’s CEO Salvatore Zappalà, who has been intent on creating a sturdy hemp supply chain in Italy. Joining MillaSensi is a slew of agricultural and industrial companies, scientific researchers and institutions prepared to leverage their strengths. The goal of this initiative? Promote respect for the earth and its inhabitants and showcase the benefits of choosing hemp.

“My role will be that of a system integrator of the supply chain and its promoter,” says Zappalà. “In reality, everyone has a specific task, applying the Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation System to the best of our ability. Everyone — companies, transformers, universities and institutions — knows exactly what to do and how to do it. In short, unity is strength. Not to destroy, but to create and share.”

Industrial Integration That’s Replicable Anywhere

Use of the fibrous material produced by the plant’s stem has held significant weight throughout history. Since 1453, durable paper made of hemp was used to produce the Bible and nearly all historical texts and books, including the Declaration of Independence. In addition, its fibers were essential to making ropes, sails, clothing and textiles.

This program will explore how this natural, recyclable material can be integrated within the construction, automotive, rail and aerospace industries. Aside from what the stem offers, the flower and seeds of the hemp plant will be used to extract oil and proteins that are applicable for use in cosmetics, food and nutraceuticals. With uses such as biofuel, seed flour, insulation, cloth and lotion, hemp is reemerging as a sustainable solution for many green transition-focused countries around the world.

Once New Tech Hemp gears up, the team will begin developing new hemp varieties, specific to benefiting commercial uses, across a multitude of field trials and greenhouses within the five municipalities. During that time researchers will develop and test new harvesting methods and technologies for extraction and discover the value of other by-products.

As preparations are underway, Zappalà shares that MilliSensi already possesses a technology capable of extracting hemp oil from the flower and seeds with water through hydro-distillation, which will be used as part of this program.

“In a year, you can achieve several results,” says Zappalà. “The first one we actually achieved even before starting is transferring the technology with which a company or industry can integrate or replace products still derived from petrochemicals with a biobased product, uniting the right players to create a new green supply chain.”

Having all hands on deck is essential to the program’s success in order to spread the mindset of creating a better world for future generations to live in and stepping away from practices that have damaged ecosystems and produced massive amounts of non-biodegradable waste.

“So in this enormous chaos, if we find, as we are convinced we have found, a philosophical model of economic sustainability through everyday work and respecting the environment, this model is replicable anywhere,” says Zappalà.

“Italy is the best country in the world to start a startup,” he says with a laugh. “But behind this joke there is an absolute truth: If it is born here and works, it can only be improved by offering it and customizing it to the world.”

Hemp UsePhoto by LUNAMARINA: Getty Images

Hemp for a Reliable Future

More than 5,000 miles from Sicily at the Mdewakanton Tribal Reservation in Southern Minnesota, the Lower Sioux Indian Community has spent years exploring ways in which hemp can serve as a reliable alternative to traditional construction materials.

Earl Pendleton, who serves as the Lower Sioux Indian Community’s Tribal Treasurer, happened to stumble across an article around 12 years ago that detailed thousands of ways hemp could be used, leaving him stunned that the plant’s fibers could be used in the construction of homes. Currently, the reservation is looking to add 100 to 150 new homes for its members. Pendleton found that hemp holds economic and environmental benefits that beat out conventional housing construction methods.

For the economic benefit to be felt, hemp needed to be produced in the state, rather than relying on importing it in from Europe or Canada. This led to a trial run of planting and harvesting their own hemp in 2017, only to find out that the reservation’s soil struggled to produce a viable harvest.

In the end, it boiled down to timing. If planted to late into the summer season, lack of water presented an issue. Trials revealed the importance of specific seed depth and row spacing, while showcasing the detriment of unintentionally planting too many male seeds.

Now years of experimentation are paying off as the Lower Sioux Community is in the midst of construction on the first U.S. industrial hemp facility to grow, process and produce hempcrete. By the end of April 2024, the new 20,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing facility will be ready to begin production to address housing needs within the community. The project is supported by a $1.5 million grant awarded by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

“Now we’re finally nailed in on how to grow it,” says Pendleton. “Our processing equipment is operational, we have grant funding and put our own funding into building a facility where we’ll be able to house the processing equipment and construction materials in a production facility.”

The final hempcrete product is nothing like traditional concrete. It’s more like insulation material, which Pendleton prefers to call it hemplime. When combining fiber from the plant’s stem with a lime-based binder the bio-composite is born. Lime is vital to the mix due to its resistance to mold or fire, producing a durable and long-lasting home. So far, application methods include a traditional mix-and-pour and a spray system.

“Hempcrete needs a structure,” says Pendleton. “You have something like wood-framed houses like we have here and the hempcrete will replace the wall system that’s typically in a house right now. It’s one material all the way through — there is no wall cavity like traditional houses have now, replacing the drywall that’s on the interior.”

The benefits of using the material include better protection from outside elements, especially Minnesota’s harsh winters. This allows for the for the community to cut on costs associated with heating and cooling their homes by up to 70%, due to the stronger insulation. It doesn’t hurt that the insulation works to virtually soundproof the home.

While the focus for Pendleton is taking care of the needs of the Lower Sioux community first, he sees the opportunity for this product to grow in the construction of apartments or hotels.

“I think we have to prove the concept first,” he says. “If people outside of the community are interested, yeah, I think we have to look at ramping up our production and explore those routes. But right now, it’s just this proof of concept to get some really good housing here for the community members and see what happens next.”

The Tribe itself has never been known for agriculture. In the 1800s, having pushed back on outside efforts to assimilate the Lower Sioux into farmers, the trade fell to the wayside. Now efforts are shifting to educating members and building skills to establish an agricultural industry, in turn creating dozens of new jobs.

“We resisted,” says Pendleton, “but here’s our chance.”

Alexis Elmore
Associate Editor of Site Selection magazine

Alexis Elmore

Alexis Elmore joined Conway Data in 2022 as associate editor for Site Selection. A 2021 graduate of the University of Georgia, she studied journalism and communications before moving back to Atlanta to pursue her career. As an editor for Site Selection and contributor to Conway's Custom Content guides, she writes about economic development efforts and corporate growth happening around the globe.


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