If all goes according to schedule, the four-seater plane—which will be made of no less than 75 percent hemp, and will run on hemp-based bio-fuel—will make its maiden flight sometime this fall or next spring from Kitty Hawk, N.C., site of the Wright Brothers’ historic take off. It’s the first part of Derek Kesek’s broader vision to help get industrial-hemp use off the ground and why he chose to make a plane rather than, say, a hemp motorcycle: It’ll get noticed.
“There are many advantages to using hemp,” says Kesek, a former organic-restaurant owner in Ontario who founded Hempearth, a company focused on developing hemp products for mass use. “This plane project is just our first experiment with industrial hemp, and we plan to explore many uses. Once we establish structural testing and information from the hemp project, we will take that and work on the next best implication. The sky may not be the limit.”
It is Kesek's belief, that hemp can be used to replace the fiberglass currently used to build aircraft. This matters because hemp production is carbon neutral, while the process of creating fiberglass creates air pollution, specifically releasing something called styrene into the atmosphere.
Hemp has been used for centuries for making things like rope and fabric, and records of the Chinese using hemp for paper-making go back a couple thousand years. Today you can buy myriad products made from industrial hemp: clothing, soaps, oil, omega-rich seeds used for food supplements and animal feed, even construction materials. A large share of the hemp products consumed in the U.S. come from Canada, which legalized industrial hemp production in 1992.
But it has been the victim of bad press in the U.S., ever since Reefer Madness-induced fear gripped the nation, and the Marihuana(cq) Tax Act of 1937 effectively shut down production of hemp in the U.S. despite the fact that industrial hemp contains merely a fraction of the psychoactive compound THC than Cannabis used for medicinal or recreational purposes. Chemical companies, too, had a stake in banning hemp, which they saw as competing with their plastics and synthetic fabrics. (The regulations were relaxed in 1942 so hemp could be grown to help in the war effort, but in 1957 production was again banned.)
Then last year, President Obama signed a farm bill that removed hemp grown for research purposes from the Controlled Substances act, allowing states to decide for themselves how to manage production; currently 19 states allow for regulated production of industrial hemp.
That’s great news for Kesek and a growing number of entrepreneurs, manufacturers, and hemp advocates who’ve embraced the plant as a sustainable, eco-friendly alternative that incurs a much smaller carbon footprint compared to traditional manufacturing materials like steel, aluminum, or fiberglass. It’s even becoming somewhat mainstream: Lotus’ Eco Elise and some Mercedes models use hemp-fiber door panels. BMW’s i3 electric car incorporates hemp-reinforced plastics in its interior. Not to mention that plant-based composites and plastics (including hemp) make a vehicle lighter, therefore more fuel efficient. Because of hemp’s versatility, the commercial applications are almost limitless.
Last fall Kesek signed a contract with a U.S. small-plane manufacturer to build the plane, using their designs but building components from hemp-and-resin panels instead of fiberglass. The project is still in its earliest phaese—He’s launched a crowd-sourced funding campaign and says he’s well on his way to reaching the $500,000 required for the project. And he’s looking around for a company that will reliably produce the hemp bio-fuel the plane will use, possibly even investing in one.
Then, says Kesek, who cites Richard Branson and Elon Musk as huge influences, he intends to “keep the patents open,” much the way that Musk released the patents on the Tesla, to encourage growth in the industry.
“We’re a company that, once we have the money, we’ll do good things with it. We want to truly give back.”