Steering 3-D Printing into Hemp Construction
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by DJ Reetz

Depending on whom you ask, hemp-based construction is either the savior of the world, or an impractical dream. The process of mixing milled hemp stalks with lime to create a concrete-like substance has seen some success, but the process remains costly, and the resulting hempcrete is not a true substitute for traditional concrete. A recent proposal to create 3D printed structures made of hempcrete may be addressing at least some of these detractions. The idea has gained attention after winning both the judges’ choice and popular choice award at the MIT Climate CoLab, a crowd-sourced scientific contest aimed at mitigating the impacts of global climate change.

The proposal was put forward by The Ancient Future Mystery People’s Pirate Academy, an organization aimed at empowering the population with locally sourced, environmentally friendly solutions to many of the problems facing the world. Naturally, these goals are well-met through hemp.

“I’d heard of hemp, and I knew that it was cool. I knew it was kind of like pot; I didn’t really know the difference that well,” says Chad Knutsen, the founder and self-described Captain of the Pirate Academy. Knutsen says he was first introduced to the enormous potential of hemp by a friend he met during the Occupy L.A. protests. His travels soon took him to Belize, where working to create an eco-community further exposed him to the potential of hemp. “Right away it became obvious that it was the plant that we needed in the world today to solve so many problems in so many industries. We can turn so much waste into abundance,“ he says. Utilizing hemp would allow for local control of materials, empowerment for farmers, and the wrestling of some control away from government officials. However, hemp farming was illegal in Belize, and the quest lead Knutsen to Colorado.

One of the more noteworthy aspects to come out of the time Knutsen spent in Belize was a unique milling system, which remains an integral part of the CoLab proposal to create hempcrete blocks that can be assembled into homes in a similar fashion to Lego bricks. “With our milling system we’re not using any friction, we’re not using heat, and we’re using very, very little energy,” says Knutsen. Using a patented mill design, pieces of hemp stalk are suspended in fluid then hit with a resonating vibration that breaks the material into extremely small pieces. “It literally vibrates the cells apart and pulls everything apart along natural molecular boundaries,” he says. The process creates micronized particles that have a larger net active surface area, allowing them to form a better bond with the lime particles and create a stronger material. It’s a process that benefits any material put through the milling process, and Knutsen claims that conventional flour refined in this method will have a drastically increased shelf life thanks to the preservation of its cellular structure. The added micronization of the milling can also increase the strength of traditional concrete, says Knutsen.

When used as outlined by the proposal, the resulting hempcrete is denser, heavier, and more importantly, sturdier than traditional forms. This means the hempcrete blocks that are produced can potentially be load-bearing, unlike more traditional forms, which can only be used as filling in a support structure’s frame. The micronized particles also have the added benefit of reducing the time required for the hempcrete to cure, cutting it by half or even two thirds, says Knutsen. “That’s what we’re trying to make possible, making it lighter than normal cement, but maintaining the beneficial properties that hempcrete brings.” Under the proposal, hempcrete blocks will be either printed or poured into molds that have been created using a 3D printer. The blocks will be similar in structure to bone, though on a much larger scale, with material occupying only the areas required to maintain structural integrity. “Either way we go, the 3D printing is a necessary element for creating this style of blocks. But we don’t necessarily plan to 3D print houses every time,” he says.

The resulting material maintains the carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative effect that hempcrete is known for, absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere as the hemp grows and continuing this process as the hempcrete petrifies. Additionally, the process of 3D printing, which allows for what Knutsen calls “waste-less construction,” compounds the environmental benefit. Unlike traditional construction methods, material is created in the exact amount needed, avoiding the waste of excess lumber that is seen in traditional home construction. The process also allows for a more mobile construction template. Using a portable mill and the pre-rendered molds, a structure can be constructed anywhere that hemp is grown. “Anyone that has hemp can build a house right on site, without having to leave their property,” says Knutsen.

While the current model relies heavily on hempcrete blocks, Knutsen says he would like to eventually adapt it to create structures using lighter, more durable hemp plastics. “That’s really the end goal, having a super modular, simple form of construction that would last hundreds of years once it’s built,” he says. For the time being, such an idea is still a ways off. Currently, Knutsen is working with hemp producers in Colorado to try and create a verifiable proof of concept. There are certainly still barriers to break, and Knutsen anticipates that the biggest challenge won’t come from the legal status of hemp. “The biggest obstacle is really not regulatory,” he says. “The issue really is the fact that the concrete industry is really one of the most cemented industries — no pun intended — in the world.”

“Our big mission is to start helping people think about the long game,” Knutsen says. “If we can get our society to stop just planning for their lifetime, then I think that’s going to be a really key goal in determining if we’re going to survive as a species.”

Solutions From Down Under
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by Maggie Maxwell

Already an emerging leader in production of sustainable, eco-friendly industrial materials, Australia’s Zeoform is looking toward the United States for customers, partners and producers. Zeoform produces a patented industrial material by the same name that is comprised entirely of water and raw cellulose, the most abundant source of fiber on Earth. Zeoform uses a variety of materials to derive their cellulose, including paper mill waste, recycled paper, reclaimed cloth, and increasingly - and perhaps most notably - industrial hemp.

“This [Zeoform] is something we could bring to America to help revive depressed workers and to galvanize the whole industrial cannabis economy,” said Zen Joseph, Vice President of Brand Marketing for Zeoform.

Founded in 2008 by CEO Alf Wheeler and a team of inventors and scientists, Zeoform used reverse-engineering of natural processes to create a durable material from cellulose, the most common organic material on Earth. Flexible and adaptable, Zeoform can be used as an alternative to polymers, including hard and soft plastics, as well as wood and fiberglass. Applications range from insulation and plywood alternatives to surfboard cores and furniture.


Ze0form imitates a natural process called hydroxyl bonding to create Zeoform material.  Using only cellulose, water and heat, waste fibers are bonded together to make extremely strong material. In raw form, these granules can be molded into countless forms for a variety of functions. Other natural additives are used to create various weights, densities and strengths.  Zeoform products are high-temperature resistant and are biodegradable.

At inception, Zeoform was conceptualized to be a hemp fiber company with Zeoform material made from hemp-derived cellulose. However, translating that concept into reality proved problematic.

“It was difficult to look at this as a viable business model,” Joseph said of industrial hemp. “We turned to the waste paper model instead. But because of media exposure worldwide, recently there has been a ton of interest in the hemp industry again.”

Joseph, Wheeler and the Zeoform team again are focusing on the industrial hemp industry, and specifically in the United States. They are particularly interested in working with farmers in Colorado and Washington, since both states have recently given the go-ahead to production of industrial hemp.

Zeoform is interested in utilizing the often tossed-away hemp fibers - those fibers so small they cannot be used for cloth, paper or other production. Using the Zeoform production process, these tiny fibers are bonded together into durable, versatile material.

“These are fibers that are of such low value they are often used as stable bedding,” Wheeler said, “but they can be re-appropriated. These low-value fibers can turn into jewelry, into furniture. They can build houses.”

In conjunction with American and global outreach efforts, Zeoform is developing a turnkey, franchise factory system to enable its partners to produce Zeoform and related products from industrial hemp. Using crowdsourcing techniques, the company hopes to create complete out-of-the-box solutions - from design, to production to distribution - for entrepreneurs already in the industry.

“The hemp farmer doesn’t think of anything as waste.  They’re already producing this fiber, and this is where Zeoform is important,” Wheeler said. “We can add value. Factory owners can generate millions of dollars of revenue every year, making high-end, quality products; products that the market wants. And products that are clean, green and sexy.”

Zeoform actively is looking for strategic partners and investors in the United States, and hopes to galvanize a community of support for its environmentally harmonious material.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that we have a material, using hemp and water and nothing else, that could change the world for the better,” Wheeler said. “Zeoform is a revolution.  We’re inviting people to join us.”




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