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New Christchurch hemp factory to lead the way in product innovation

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

A new hemp processing facility in Christchurch is set to open the way for ground-breaking research and development into products made from hemp and linseed flax fibres - with a huge range of potential applications from yarn to construction materials.

Under a partnership established late last year, Hemp NZ, which grows and processes hemp nationwide, has acquired a 15% interest in NZ Yarn, which produces wool yarn for the carpet industry.

Hemp NZ is now about to commence installing the state-of-the-art hemp fibre processing equipment - the first of its kind in New Zealand - in a 3000m2 space at the NZ Yarn factory in Burnside.

This will transform the NZ Yarn building from a wool yarn plant into a fully-fledged, modern fibre factory with leading-edge equipment purpose-built and engineered specifically for hemp processing, alongside its existing wool yarn spinning equipment.

The new hemp processing facility, called a decorticator, is being imported from the UK in two separate shipments. It will separate hemp stalks into fibre (which can be woven) and hurd (a woody core material which has fire retardant and insulating properties).

Once the machinery is commissioned at the end of this year, NZ Yarn and Hemp NZ will begin what is thought to be the first-ever commercial processing of hemp stalks into fibre in New Zealand, using crop from the 2019 harvest.

Following the 2020 harvest, good quantities of hemp crop are expected to be available for processing through the facility.

A joint research and development team made up of Hemp NZ, NZ Yarn and Ashburton-based global agribusiness group Carrfields - 50% owner of NZ Yarn’s parent company Carrfields Primary Wool (CP Wool) - is now exploring possible consumer and industrial applications for hemp fibre.

The research team will use fibre from the new machinery to trial various innovations, says Colin McKenzie, Group CEO of NZ Yarn and CP Wool.

"There are many, many potential uses for hemp and flax fibre in woven products and it has tremendously exciting potential across a variety of sectors. Among the possible uses we are exploring are wool and hemp blends for use in soft flooring, and we know from conversations with our customers that there is already strong interest in this type of product."

Blending hemp with merino fibre to produce yarn for use in clothing is also on the research and development check sheet, with a leading European fabric weaving company having expressed strong interest in this blend.

Non-woven products are also on the cards for development and testing; including a natural hemp-based material that could replace single-use plastic food packaging, as well as a hemp-based replacement for the permeable synthetic ‘geotextile’ fabric which is used to stabilise soil in infrastructure works.

"Further down the track we’re also looking at how hemp fibre could be used to produce a natural replacement for carbon composites, which could be moulded and used for building materials as well as in many other industrial applications," Mr McKenzie says.

Using hemp in such a wide variety of sectors is relatively uncharted territory globally, which means significant investment in tests and trials will be required, he says.

"We know hemp is an extremely versatile, environmentally-friendly natural product that definitely has a place in a wide variety of consumer and industrial sectors, given the environmental damage being caused by synthetic fibres and plastics."

Dave Jordan, chief executive of Hemp New Zealand, says the installation of the new processing facility is a major step forward for the fledgling hemp industry in New Zealand.

"We’re expecting to be able to produce a very high quality fibre using efficient processing techniques. This will help place New Zealand at the forefront of hemp and natural fibre innovation globally," he says.

"There is some commercial hemp production being developed in Europe but we’ve now caught up to where they are in terms of technology, infrastructure and innovation."

Hemp fibre has a long history of human use dating back thousands of years and is now undergoing a strong resurgence amid increasing global awareness of the environmental damage caused by synthetic fibres and plastics, says Mr Jordan.

"The resurgence in popularity of hemp is based on its excellent environmental credentials. It is pest-resistant, easy to grow organically and produces a very good yield of fibre per hectare compared with many other crops.

"Hemp fibre also doesn’t require chemical processing or bleaching, it blends very well with other fibres and it has excellent strength and durability. Overall, hemp can provide a very good return for both farmers and processors, as well as a high quality, natural end product for the consumer."

Hemp has been stigmatised and under-appreciated for decades but we’re working to change people’s perception of this highly valuable commercial crop, Mr Jordan says.

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