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WIST secures permit for research on industrial hemp
Lindsey Hoffman, WIST laboratory and papermaking project specialist, preps hemp fibers for digestion.

Industrial hemp is making a comeback, driven mainly by growing interest in and demand for hemp seeds and cannabidiol -- CBD -- derived from plant leaves and flowers for use in health applications. But hemp fibers may prove to be a valuable material once again, as well, in applications ranging from textiles to papermaking. With that in mind, WIST has secured a permit to conduct research on the plant material, becoming one of the first laboratories licensed under the state of Wisconsin's new industrial hemp pilot program.

Hemp was once an agricultural and industrial mainstay. In the heyday of sailing, vessels were rigged with ropes made of hemp, and into the 18th century hemp was a major material for the textiles industry. Its strong and durable fibers found many uses. But by the early 20th century, alternative sources such as cotton for clothing and wood fiber for papermaking pushed hemp aside. Over time, with increasing regulation of drugs and concern about marijuana use as recreational drug, cultivation of marijuana and hemp was banned in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere. Industrial hemp is a variety of the same species as marijuana, Cannabis sativa L., but there's a key difference: industrial hemp won't get you high. It contains only a tiny percentage of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive element of marijuana.

Beginning in 2014, federal law changes allowed limited production of industrial hemp by universities and state departments of agriculture. By 2018, more than 20 states had enacted industrial hemp pilot programs. Production of and research on industrial hemp in Wisconsin is regulated by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection under legislation passed in 2017.

Paul Fowler, WIST executive director, said the institute's application for the research license was initially spurred by an inquiry from a potential industrial hemp fiber user. But with widespread and growing interest in hemp, Fowler believes the institute will uncover more opportunities.

We asked Fowler about WIST's plans for its newest research endeavor.

This is all approved through Wisconsin's pilot program under DATCP?

Paul Fowler Fowler: It's industrial hemp only, so we have a permit which says we can receive hemp from within Wisconsin or from other states that also have an industrial hemp pilot program. So any hemp that we receive has to accompanied by certification that establishes that the THC content is below 0.3 percent.

Why is WIST interested in hemp research?

Fowler: Well, [we're interested] from the point of view of the fiber component of hemp. Our take on the reinvigoration of hemp with the industrial hemp pilot project is that there's a lot of interest around CBD oil, and a co-product of oil production is all the fiber that's going to accrue from oil processing. And with our longstanding capability in fiber processing and looking at uses of fiber, we figure that investigating hemp for 21st century uses of the fiber was the right thing to do from the point of view of economic development, valorizing the whole hemp industry in Wisconsin.

WIST has done some work with specialty papers and specialty paper is a big part of Wisconsin paper production. How might hemp fit into specialty paper?

Fowler: That's a great question and that's what we want to understand, is where and how can hemp fit into specialty papers in terms of the fiber properties that we anticipate hemp's going to have.

There are some unique things about hemp. One thing that comes to mind is that it has very long fibers. Can you talk a bit about some of the unique properties of the hemp fiber that you are aware of now and maybe the challenges or opportunities?

A field of industrial hemp. Photo:
Fowler: It's maybe too early - but I think the fiber length and fiber aspect ratio are all things that we want to look at and understand how they could complement specialty paper, whether it's in packaging or automotive applications. You're just really figuring out where those niches are and how processable are those fibers in a conventional wood fiber processing mill. Hemp's considered a new crop to Wisconsin, even though 70 years ago I think Wisconsin was probably one of the main hemp-producing states, so there probably is a body of old literature around those aspects that we haven't yet delved into. So really, it's understanding how the context for hemp has changed almost 100 years later and where we can target applications for the fiber.

What is WIST doing right now in terms of any research?

Fowler: The big step was to make sure that we were compliant with regulations, so we put in place all the documentation and got ourselves permitted to be able to process hemp, and we are working actually with a business in Minnesota. They have an industrial hemp pilot program and we're just looking at the properties of those fibers for various applications.

We've got the Focal Point conference coming up. We've done a lot of work on paper-based packaging. Do you see some possibilities for hemp in packaging?

Fowler: I absolutely see some possibilities. Whether or not we'll have anything in a couple of months is a stretch. Just from point of view of what we know about the fibers now and their length and their dimensions, there has to be some scope for using those fibers in packaging applications. Maybe Focal Point 2019 there'll be a focus on hemp.
For more information about WIST's research on industrial hemp or other institute research and laboratory services, contact Fowler at
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