Aussie machine set to revolutionise industrial hemp industry

Victorian company Textile & Composite Industries P–L has produced an industrial hemp-processing machine, which, the company claims, has the potential to revolutionise global textile, food and building materials markets. John Power investigates.

Industrial hemp is a rugged, versatile crop servicing a broad range of food, textile and building industries.

Industrial hemp is the most enigmatic crop in the world. 

Throughout history devotees have lauded hemp as a robust, fast-growing superhero of the plant world, renowned for the textile strength of its fibrous skin, the nourishment of its seeds, and the multifunctionality of the stalk’s woody core, or ‘hurd’.

However, industrial hemp has had two Achilles heels.

First, whereas industrial hemp seed harvesting has always been a straightforward operation, critics have lamented the expense and difficulty of processing the stalk of the plant to separate the fibre-bearing skin from the inner hurd. (Historically, fibre has been obtained by allowing the stalk to rot over weeks or months to separate the fibrous skin from the hurd: an inefficient and wasteful process known as ‘retting’.)

Second, a political dimension has also hindered the uptake of industrial hemp throughout the western world over the past 80 years or so. Unlike its psychoactive cousin marijuana, which contains the hallucinogenic compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), industrial hemp contains NEGLIGIBLE quantities of THC, and is therefore no more psychoactive than a potato or carrot. Incredibly, until recently many lawmakers around the world failed to differentiate between marijuana and industrial hemp when imposing bans on drugs, effectively bundling together all THC-bearing and non-THC-bearing hemp varieties as a bureaucratic expedience!

The good news is that both political and processing hurdles are vanishing quickly. On the political front, laws are changing: industrial hemp crops are now legal in more than 100 countries, including Canada (since 1998), USA (2018), and most Australian States (Vic. 1998; Tas. 1996; SA 2017; NSW 2008; and WA since the late 1990s). 

And in relation to perennial processing difficulties, Australian company Textile & Composite Industries P–L (TCI) has created a mechanical alternative to retting, cutting processing costs by 80 per cent and making industrial hemp commercially viable for the first time.

In this article we examine TCI’s new machine, known as the Decorticator D8, and look at what its availability means for worldwide industrial hemp producers and their multifaceted markets. 

DECORTICATOR D8

The Decorticator D8, manufactured in Victoria by Textile & Composite Industries P–L, is revolutionising industrial hemp processing worldwide.

Designed by TCI, and manufactured in Geelong, Victoria, for local markets, the transportable Decorticator D8 is the eighth iteration of a design that was first prototyped 25 years ago. The first machine was the brainchild of the late Adrian Clarke, who in the mid-1990s saw the great potential for industrial hemp as a formidable cash crop for struggling Australian farmers.

Charles Kovess, TCI’s CEO and Secretary of the Australian Industrial Hemp Alliance, said Adrian was looking for a crop that would be “profitable, sustainable, and allow farmers to keep their properties.”

According to Mr Kovess, the idea of restricting broadacre farms to mono-product agriculture is nonsense – a practice promulgated by greedy supermarket buyers. By contrast, he said efficiently processed industrial hemp is an ideal crop servicing myriad markets, from food and clothing to building products, as well as a range of other specialist landscaping, livestock and manufacturing sectors. See Table 1.

Industrial hemp uses less water than cotton, serves as a great rotational crop thanks to its soil-rejuvenating properties, and has a growing cycle [seed to harvest] of just 100–140 days in most of Australia’s temperate climates. Adult plants stand 3–4m tall.

At present, industrial hemp is a boutique industry, producing just 100,000 tonnes per year globally (i.e. about 0.3 per cent of global cotton production). However, Mr Kovess said the release of the Decorticator D8 has the potential to bridge that chasm.

The 2,500kg D8 resembles an industrial conveyor-fed mulching machine. Once the hemp has been harvested using a conventional reaper-binder method, a pair of workers feed collected hemp plants onto the base of the conveyor.

The D8 can process between one and five tonnes of hemp stalk per hour, instantly separating woody hurd from the fibre and feeding the respective raw product streams into separate collector bags for subsequent processing.

Mr Kovess estimated that landowners can expect to earn approximately $2,000–$6,000 per hectare from the fibre and hurd alone; earnings from seed sales are additional. For a more comprehensive typical cost-earning analysis, see Table 2.

According to Mr Kovess, it is impossible to overstate the importance of the Decorticator D8 as a means of bringing industrial hemp into mainstream industrial consciousness.

“This is such a revolution – experienced people in hemp generally don’t believe it’s possible,” he said.

Over the years, TCI has sold a number of Decorticators to clients around the world.

“So far we have sold earlier iterations in New Zealand,” Mr Kovess said. “We’ve sold a D8 machine to a buyer in Gippsland [Victoria], and we’ve sent an upgraded D8 to Canada. We’re now building another two machines for contracts with America, and I’m confident that in the next month we’ll sell another six or seven.”

In addition, TCI is negotiating sales with 200 customers in US, Canada, the Caribbean, South America, Hungary, central Europe, western Europe, Ireland, England, Thailand, Malaysia, India, and even Nepal.

“It’s also fantastic news for people in the equipment business, as well as Australian engineers,” Mr Kovess said, vowing that machines made for the Australasian market will continue to be manufactured by constructors in Geelong.

IN THE FIELD

Industrial hemp is an easy crop to grow, with some 150 different varieties available to suit most growing conditions. As a rule, plants are averse to excessive moisture, requiring only 2 megalitres per hectare under drip or pivot irrigation regimes.

Hemp tends to thrive in the same soils and locations that are suitable for wheat, barley, corn, carrots and potatoes. Ideal states for hemp growth are Victoria and Tasmania.

Sowing via seed is a conventional affair at a rate of 50–60kg of seed per hectare. The aim is to plant seeds densely at a depth of 2cm. Indeed, a heavy density of approximately 200 plants per square metre is common, and helps achieve two goals: not only do more plants produce greater yields, but tightly bunched plants promote seed growth at the head of the plant for easier seed harvesting, and also create straighter stalks.

Growth of 4cm per day is not unusual, hence the casual appellation ‘weed’ applied to the hemp family of plants. When harvesting, landowners have a choice between young green plants or older, drier plants. The Decorticator D8 will handle both grades with equal ease.

Younger plants produce a finer, higher quality fibre, but without high seed yield; whereas older plants have more abundant seed yields, but coarser fibres. Prevailing markets inevitably help dictate decisions.

Once the Decorticator D8 has separated the fibre from the hurd, fibres need to be ‘degummed’ with a liquid dunk and squeeze prior to milling as textiles. Industrial hemp fibres can be spun on standard cotton spinning equipment, creating a resilient and linen-like material with natural anti-bacterial properties. Mr Kovess invites owners of hemp shirts to wear them for weeks on end: no smell!

Fibres that are not destined for clothing textile markets do not require degumming.

Hamish Henke, an industrial hemp farmer from Mumbannar, Victoria, with Charles Kovess from Textile & Composite Industries P–L.

Hurd is an amazingly lightweight and tough material with endless uses, including car bodies, paper and biofuels. Considered in conjunction with the product classes listed above in Table 1, it is clear that one of industrial hemp’s primary attractions is its multi-market versatility, offering an inbuilt protection against mono-product price fluctuations.

“There are also big carbon sequestration benefits,” Mr Kovess said. “And industrial hemp absorbs chemical impurities: we grew it in tobacco-damaged land in northern Victoria, and it’s proven to reduce the level of chemicals in the soil.” Hemp has even been used to reduce radioactivity in contaminated soils.

BUSINESS OPPORTUNITIES

The Decorticator D8, Mr Kovess explained, is a patented engineering system with no major commercial rivals worldwide.

Prior to degumming: hemp fibre leaves the Decorticator D8 in coarse tufts.

A small Chinese machine has been released, “but we’re reliably informed by people who have bought the machine that it doesn’t really work,” Mr Kovess said.

“Apart from that, there are some smaller machines but everybody says ours is by far the best machine available to do this job.” 

Landowners wishing to gain a foothold in the burgeoning industrial hemp market have plenty of options, ranging from growing plants as primary, rotational or supplementary crops on their existing properties (with TCI guidance and crop oversight, if desired), to investing directly in TCI’s subsidiary Textile & Composites Production Pty Ltd.

This degummed industrial hemp fibre is ready for application in the textile market.

Other ways of gaining hemp market exposure include the purchase of one or more Decorticator D8s ($350,000 ex factory) for lease to landowners in a specific catchment; investment in hemp seed banks for distribution to farming customers; investment in degumming businesses for fibre preparation in textile industries; as well as investment in any of the numerous downstream manufacturing industries that make use of raw industrial hemp.

Charles Kovess is happy to discuss investment opportunities with any interested parties – email Mr Kovess at Charles@nullkovess.com for more information.

More information
Textile & Composite Industries P–L
www.textilecomposite.com.au