Scientific research on the cultivation and industrialisation of hemp has intensified in the last ten years in response to an increasing interest in alternative non-food crops. Of particular interest is the possibility to have natural raw materials as opposed to those derived from petrochemicals.
Hemp is an ideal non-food crop because not only does it offer a valid alternative to the surplus of food crops available, it can also be grown organically and thus be easily included in crop rotations. Hemp therefore is an eco-sustainable crop.
Current research on hemp must resolve the issues that inhibit its larger diffusion. The principal issues at hand are:
- Lack of genotypes adapted to different cultivation environments
- Seed availability
- Mechanisation of harvesting and bailing
- Retting or de-gumming (ridding the extracted fibres of debris), and preparing the fibres for spinning
- Guaranteed supply of homogeneous high quality fibre for the industries
- Identification of new commercial applications for short hemp fibre and its bi-products.
Gruppo Fibranova is actively seeking the solutions that will enable the successful development of the entire hemp production line.
Gruppo Fibranova's research activities focus mainly on the production of high quality fibre for textile applications. Our research has shown that the added value of processing fibres for textiles contributes significantly to the economic success of processing hemp or other fibre crops. Naturally, in the context of a western, or in any way a technologically advanced industry, it is indispensable that the end-product, the material, the yarn and the fibre all have superior quality characteristics than those that could be obtained with traditional processing methods. It is also necessary that a more homogeneous production standard can be obtained.
To obtain useful results Fibranova has applied itself to research in strategic sectors of the fibre production chain, i.e. in the cultivation and primary processing of the hemp.
In particular, Gruppo Fibranova focuses their research in three key sectors of the production chain in which valid solutions are still missing:
- mechanisation of harvesting
- mechanisation of the decortication processes
- fibre retting processes
Since its beginning Gruppo Fibranova has actively participated in research projects that would enable innovative developments of a process that is in itself antique.
In 1999 the Agrinnova services in Tuscany financed the set up of a database on the harvesting, scutching and retting machineries available for hemp, including information on any patents.
In 2000-20002 Fibranova took part in a project initiated by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture; "Hemp for Textiles: from cultivation to application - Research trials and analysis for the design of an integrated decortication and retting system of hemp at an industrial level". The project experimented with the use of linen production systems for hemp and produced the first hemp fibre that was then used for preliminary retting trials. The fibre produced was combed and evaluated by Zignago textiles.
In this same project, in collaboration with the Experimental Institute of Agricultural Mechanisation (ISMA), Fibranova carried out research trials with the hemp harvesters in France and Italy.
In 2003 Fibranova initiated and co-ordinated the project TOSCANAPA in which a pilot plant for retting hemp fibre was built. The retting process was studied in detail and the machineries needed to rett the fibre and render it suitable for the successive processing phases were identified. The trials carried out in 2003 enable us now to up-scale the process, an activity that is ongoing and for which Fibranova is also performing a feasibility study.
Additional trials carried out in TOSCANAPA dealt with the use of bark and short fibre, (the by-products of scutching), in the production of paper pulp. The trials demonstrated that the woody core mixed with a certain quantity of fibre, is profitable for the production of kraft paper. The more fibrous part could instead be used in special paper such as printed money.
Using the experience obtained in TOSCANAPA along with the most recent data, a technical-economic evaluation of hemp cultivation was carried out and a business plan was subsequently drawn up. This business plan estimates the economic benefit for the farmers themselves should they cultivate the hemp and perform the primary processing steps of the harvested crop.
Another project launched in 2003 was HEMP-SYS, which is a European co-financed research project. Gruppo Fibranova was an active promoter in the set up of this project that intends to design and develop systems of cultivation and transformation of high quality. The expected result of the project will be to render each actor in the production chain capable of objectively evaluating the quality of their output and to integrate each aspect into a system in which "quality" is the result of informed and shared choices. Farmers in a given area will know in advance which hemp variety to sow and which agrotechniques to use according to the end-use, and thus the market price at which they can expect to sell. The scutching and the retting industries will know in advance which quality of fibre they will have available and thus will know to which industrial sector they can sell the fibre, be it for textiles, paper or composites. The producer of end-products can evaluate the quality data of each successive processing step and can ultimately use it to support a traceability certification of their product.
Participation in the above mentioned projects has enabled Gruppo Fibranova to exchange data, experiences and other information with numerous research institutes in Italy and abroad. Moreover, close collaborations over the years now means that Gruppo Fibranova is always aware of new research results and new opportunities of development, wherever in the world.