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U.S. industrial hemp development continues

By Susanne Retka Schill
Web exclusive posted Nov. 20, 2008 at 12:17 p.m. CST

Developers and farmers continue to pave the way for hemp as a biomass crop in the United States.

The U.S. Appeals Court in St. Paul, Minn., heard arguments Nov. 12 by two North Dakota farmers trying to get a lower court's dismissal of their suit against a federal agency overturned. David Monson, Osnabrock, N.D., and Wayne Hauge, Ray, N.D., have state approval to grow industrial hemp in North Dakota, but are suing the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to get a federal permit to grow industrial hemp. Hemp is related to the illegal drug marijuana and under federal law some of the industrial hemp plant is considered a controlled substance. The three-judge appeals panel will issue a written decision, but that isn't expected to be available for several months.

While a number of states allow hemp research, North Dakota was the only one to allow hemp cultivation until Vermont granted permission earlier this year.

In Massachusetts, a developer sourced the hemp he used for product evaluation from Canada where the crop is legally grown. Jim Pillsbury of Framingham, Mass., is developing hemp for heating pellets. In 2007, Pillsbury had a Canadian prototype biomass research facility, ViFam Pro Services of Kirkland, Quebec, test hemp leaf biomass for heating pellets which were then analyzed at the Twin Ports Testing Labs in Superior, Wis.

This past year, the tests were repeated using hemp biomass, stalk and leaf. Two pellet samples were evaluated one comprised of a composition of half leaf and half stalk, the other pellet was made with 100 percent stalk. Pillsbury said the mixed pellets performed similar to the first round of tests done the previous year. The hemp pellets have a heat content similar to wood pellets at 7,247 British thermal units per pound with a 19 percent ash content. The pellet made from just hemp stalk had a higher energy content and lower ash content at 7,890 Btu per pound and nine percent ash content. Pillsbury added, in both cases the hemp fiber used in textiles and paper production had been removed, and the remaining biomass pelletized. ViFam is currently doing a cost analysis for developing a unit that would separate and pelletize hemp on the farm.

Pillsbury predicts President-elect's Barack Obama's administration will lift the ban on growing hemp in the United States, and pointed out that it's being grown in many other countries. "The new administration has a solid commitment to bring new and old ideas to the table for renewable energy," he said. Industrial hemp is an ideal bioenergy, Pillsbury said, citing figures from Canada that show straw yields of 6 tons per hectare (2.47 acres) and 1.5 tons of fiber, in addition to 200 liters (50 gallons) of oil pressed from the seed.
 

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