Air transport and fossil fuels burned for its needs are a big ecological problem. The production and utilization of aircraft itself takes place with huge environmental cost. However, it’s very unlikely that we will entirely give up sky travels out of concern for the environment. Maybe we must therefore work to minimize their ecological footprint. We should start building and fuel planes in a much more sustainable way. What would happen if such machines flew on hemp biofuel? Even more – what if we built them using hemp? Sounds like a dream. With the fact that this time it has a chance to come true. The world’s first prototype, several-person hemp airplane, designed by the Canadian company Hempearth, may soon take its first test flight.
Hemp airplane, a ridiculoued concept with great potential
The originator and company owner, Derek Kesek, was supposedly mocked when he talked about his idea for the first time a few years ago . Nobody seemed to believe that the hemp plane could be built. Despite this, Hempearth company dealing with – among others – production of hemp plastic, has been working on the prototype for 5 years – and, despite financial obstacles, doesn’t give up.
The idea itself seems revolutionary. After all, hemp has been hailed as the raw material of the 21st century by many enthusiasts. No wonder, its uses are countless. The use of hemp fibers in machine construction elements is only one – not so new – of them. Component parts of machines with the addition of hemp may have the same (if not better) parameters as their traditional counterparts while being much more ecological . Not to mention the entire hemp plane, additionally powered by hemp biofuel. Only… How can this be done?
Hemp works great in the automotive industry
The first things that come to mind regarding hemp are sailing ropes, healthy food, cannabinoid oils, possibly natural house building or funny socks. In any case – not airplanes. However, it turns out that hemp fibers are ideal for building durable structures.
Hemp can be successfully used, e.g. as a component of FRP (Fiber Reinforced Polymer). Such material is nothing but plastic reinforced with hemp fibers. It’s increasingly used as an alternative to polymers with glass fibers, especially in the automotive industry . Why?
Composites made of natural fibers can be 25-30% stronger than glass fiber and can provide the same performance at a lower weight . The addition of hemp fibers improves the material’s tensile strength by several percent, as well as its bending strength (up to 30-35%) . However, this isn’t all – in car parts, composites made of hemp fibers reduce the weight of the element and can reduce the total energy used for its production by 80% . Furthermore, hemp fiber composite materials also provide greater comfort for users / passengers. They absorb sound very well , thus the inside of the machine is much quieter.
Why not in airplanes?
If cannabis works in the automotive industry, why not in aviation? Airplanes are usually made of various metal alloys and composite materials reinforced with glass fibers. Therefore, nothing stands in the way of replacing them with natural fibers. The hemp airplane, for the reasons described above, has a considerable advantage in terms of durability. This advantage, however, doesn’t apply only to glass fiber – some say that hemp fibers are several times stronger even than steel .
The body structure alone isn’t the only reason to call this sky-high sensation a “hemp airplane”. Its wings, armchairs and even pillows are to be built with hemp as well. The entire airplane is planned to consist of approximately 75% of this amazing plant . Unlike glass fibers in construction or even cotton in equipment, hemp is seen as a particularly desirable solution in the face of growing environmental threats.
Hemp airplane means more environmental responsibility
Very high “content” of natural fibers among the elements of equipment and construction of such an aircraft means that its recycling would be a much lower burden for the environment. Hemp, unlike many materials commonly used in aviation, isn’t toxic.
The production of hemp fibers is more economical and ecological than, for example, the production of glass fibers. First, the cultivation of plants depends mainly on solar energy (free, non-emissive). In turn, the production of glass and fiberglass are energy-intensive processes, mainly dependent on fossil fuels. It’s a process that requires 5-10 times more non-renewable energy than natural fiber production .
However, this isn’t all. The hemp airplane is to be powered by biofuel, of course, made with hemp. While it doesn’t make much difference in terms of emissions, the production of biofuel is way more environmentally responsible than oil production. Significantly smaller weight of a hemp airplane than a traditional one also means that less fuel is needed to lift the machine into the air.
Everything indicates, therefore, that hemp aircraft can be a much more sustainable alternative in aviation. If, of course, the construction work is ever finished.
-  Carter M., 2014: World’s First Plane Made Out of Hemp Flies High Next Year. Inhabitat: https://inhabitat.com/worlds-first-plane-made-out-of-hemp-flies-high-next-year/ [received 09.03.2020].
-  Scarponi C., 2015: Hemp fiber composites for the design of a Naca cowling for ultra-light aviation. Composites Part B: Engineering, 81, 53–63.
-  FlexForm Technologies: Natural Fiber Composites a substitute for glass fiber?: http://www.naturalfibersforautomotive.com/?p=20 [received 09.03.2020].
-  Shah N., Fehrenbach J., Ulven C.A., 2019: Hybridization of Hemp Fiber and Recycled-Carbon Fiber in Polypropylene Composites. Sustainability, 11.
-  Nestle E., 2019: Plane made of hemp – sensation, revolution, hallucination? WingMag Aviation Magazine: https://wingmag.com/en/plane-made-of-hemp-sensation-revolution-hallucination [received 09.03.2020].