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Over the last three weeks, the Houston, TX area has been besieged by chemical fires—the latest resulting in the death of one person and the hospitalization of two others. A few weeks ago, another petrochemical facility caught on fire, consuming 11 storage tanks and sending toxic materials spewing into the air and Houston ship channel. During the initial fire, smoke billowing from the facility created a dark cloud that stretched over 20 miles across the City of Houston.
These types of incidents cast a pall over the petrochemical industry and reinforce the urgency of finding more environmentally-friendly—and human-friendly—solutions. Nonetheless, our dependency on petrochemicals has proven hard to overcome, largely because these materials are as versatile as they are volatile. From fuel to plastics to textiles to paper to packaging to construction materials to cleaning supplies, petroleum-based products are critical to our industrial infrastructure and way of life.
Although there are numerous companies and researchers attempting to use synthetic biology to obsolete our petro-industrial complex, much of this research is a long way from commercialization. Interestingly, however, there is a naturally-occurring and increasingly-popular material that can be used to manufacture many of the same products we now make from petroleum-derived materials—and you have undoubtedly already heard of it. That material is hemp.
Industrial hemp, not to be confused with marijuana, was recently removed from the federal government’s schedule of controlled substances in the 2018 Farm Bill. The crop can be used to make everything from biodegradable plastic to construction materials like flooring, siding, drywall and insulation to paper to clothing to soap to biofuels made from hemp seeds and stalks. Porsche is even usinghemp-based material in the body of its 718 Cayman GT4 Clubsport track car to reduce the weight while maintaining rigidity and safety.