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How Terpenes can become Plastics & Rocket Fuel.

Terpenes are a hot topic in the cannabis and hemp industry today for the rich scents they impart to cannabis flowers and extracts, but did you know that terpenes could also be made into plastics — and even rocket fuel?

When people talk about how hemp has “25,000 uses,” one of the uses they frequently extol is hemp’s ability to make plant-based plastics. There’s increasing murmurs about the possibility of terpene-based plastics — and even terpene-based rocket fuel.

Terpenes are the aromatic oils that the cannabis plant (and other botanical plants) produce which give it distinctive flavors and smells. They are found primarily on cannabis and hemp flowers, and because federal law distinguishes between cannabis and hemp-based upon a 0.3% THC rule, terpenes can be derived from both cannabis and hemp.

As terpenes have disrupted the THC-dominated world of cannabis, they could be even more disruptive to the petrochemical industry. That’s because new research shows that terpenes can be turned into a resin that can make plastics. To better understand the work currently being done with hemp bioplastics and biofuels, HEMP reached out to four experts, who let us know why the future of terpene-based hemp plastics might be far off.

The Present: How Hemp-Based Plastics Are Made From Fiber

At the moment, the plant-based plastic industry is gathering momentum as the environmental costs of single-use plastic become more widely known. When it comes to making plant-based plastics, plant fiber, or cellulose, is used as the feedstock.

Hemp has long fibers that make it useful for making plant-based plastic, but those fibers don’t come from the same parts of the plant (the flowers) that are used to make CBD oil. Hemp is not grown for plastic production in the way it is grown for CBD or hemp oil, the plastic is made from the waste parts of the plant.

The first step in turning garbage into gold is taking the raw hemp stalk and processing it into a form pellets. Turning stalk and stem waste into the fiber where we can control the tensile strength and cellulose Hurd becomes plastics or semi-conductor materials.

The whole process takes just 90 minutes and their proprietary technique claims to remove all the heavy metals, pesticides, THC, CBD, and other contaminants.

According to Tubbs, a major selling point of their polymer is that they are “a drop-in replacement for the raw resin,” meaning Tubbs can “take someone who has been using nothing but oil-based plastics and convert them over.” For Tubbs, even if companies use a hemp resin blend, “the bottom line is every ounce of hemp we add is an ounce of polymer we did not add.”

The final step in making hemp-based plastics is for manufacturers, or molders, melt those pellets down into a myriad of plastic products. One such company is Sana Packaging, which produces affordable hemp and ocean plastic packaging solutions for the cannabis industry. Sana’s co-founder and chief strategy officer James Eichner told HEMP that “the big challenge for circular packaging is finding markets, companies, and municipalities who are on board with an idea like this.”

In other words, there is no carbon tax on products that use more fossil fuels. Even though we don’t see the costs of those packaging decisions in the short term, in the long term, they are contributing to global climate change.

The Future: One Giant Leap for Terp-Kind

Currently, hemp plastics are made from fiber — but what if hemp plastics could be made from hemp-based oil in much the same way that plastics are made from petroleum?

Recent research by the University of Birmingham has demonstrated a technique that can turn terpenes into resins for polymers which “could lead to a new generation of sustainable materials.”

The researchers found that “different terpenes produce different material properties” and their next step will be “to investigate those properties more fully to better control them.” While that research may sound groundbreaking, the scientific community has known polymers can be made from terpenes since 1937.

While that may not seem a likely scenario now because of how in-demand and expensive terpenes are, as the price of hemp grown for cannabinoids and terpenes drops (as it has for cannabis following state legalization), more people could theoretically begin to grow more hemp for fiber, leaving the flower (and therefore the terpenes) as a byproduct.

What About Terpene-Based Fuel?

Air travel is one of the worst producers of greenhouse gases, and that’s in large part because of the energy it takes to create jet fuel (from the nonrenewable resource of petroleum).

However, research has shown that certain terpenes have been demonstrated to work in fuels that produce enough net heat to be comparable to JP-10 tactical missile fuel, which is also known as rocket fuel and can cost up to $25 a gallon from petroleum sources.

“I think rockets and aviation fuel are the areas where we need some of the most innovation to figure out what we are going to replace with petroleum,” said Backus. She noted that, while we have biofuels mostly figured out for cars, we have no good solutions yet for air travel, so this terpene research looks very promising.

In fact, these terpene-based fuels looked so promising to the Department of Defense that the U.S. Navy has a patent on them and they have been studied by the Department of Energy. Perhaps the next time you fly, the terpenes you smell will be coming from the engine rather than someone trying to discretely hit a vape pen in the next row.

Closing In on a Circular Economy

The ultimate goal of using the waste parts of plants to produce fuel and packaging is to create what is known as a “circular economy,” an economy without waste because resources are reused at the end of their life instead of being sent to the landfill.

The Hemp Mag