Hemp Plastics

“Anything that can be made from hydrocarbons (oil, coal, natural gas), can be made from carbohydrates (plant material).” – source unknown.

The above quote is again important because it dispels the notion that we are dependent upon fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas) for fuels, plastics and chemical feed-stocks in industry.

CelluloidCollar“Synthetic plastics were practically as old as agriculture itself. They were made in the shadow of the pyramids from cooked starch, and celluloid collars antedated the twentieth century, but it took a world war to disclose their infinite potentialities to American industrialists. From 1918 on, the chemical industry made greater technological advances than even the automobile or aviation, and the great chemical companies which fed it, by getting in early, rapidly built up fabulous fortunes.” (p.323, GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER).
Postcard Copyright 1989 Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, MI

The History Channel on cable television had a special show titled:   “PLASTIC.”  From this show came this general recipe for celluloid plastic:  Cellulose + Camphor (solvent) + Nitric Acid (NO3)

whitehurdsHow does the hemp plant fit into the plastic scheme?  The white hemp hurds (shown left) or sticks left when the fiber has been removed are 77% cellulose and are 6 times the weight of the fiber.  Hemp is the most efficient crop for biomass and cellulose worldwide.


BKStoryCelluloTHE STORY OF CELLULOSICS: From the series “Speaking of Plastics.” 1963. Fry Plastics International. Los Angeles, CA. 56 pages. Book size 8 1/2 X 5 1/2 inches. This booklet I picked up at a plastics store.

“Cellulosics is the pioneer story in the history and growth of the great plastics industry as we see it today .Because of the fact that during the middle of the nineteenth century there was a shortage of ivory from which to make billiard balls, one of the most important and versatile industries was born.”

In 1869, the Hyatt brothers, in America, developed Cellulose Nitrate into a workable plastic mass they patented.  Called Celluloid it was first used for billiard balls, dental plates, and collars and cuffs for shirts.

CelluloAtStrOne interesting thing in looking at the chemical composition of cellulose is remembering that the carbon (C) of plant material such as cellulose is from carbon dioxide (CO2) pulled from the atmosphere, where excess CO2 from fossil fuel burning has created the greenhouse effect and is causing global warming. When carbon is tied up in cellulose plastic this process actually helps reverse global warming.

ChemSpkCelluTYPICAL APPLICATIONS (1963) mentioned in the Cellulosics book are from 100 different formulations and are among the 50,000 viable industrial uses of the hemp plant.

Toys, lampshades, vacuum cleaner parts, combs, shoe heels .portable radio cases, pipe, tubing, tool handles, appliance housing .telephone hand sets, pens, pencils, edge moldings on cabinets .flashlights, frames, heel covers, fabric coating, outdoor movie speakers, knobs .electrical parts, packaging material, electrical insulation, photographic film, outdoor and indoor signs .telephone wires, steering wheels automobile arm rests, football helmets, pistol grips .business machine keys, toothbrush handles, fish net floats, fishing lures, hearing aid parts . optical frames, floor sweeper parts, furniture trim, luggage, military applications.

GeoWashCarverThe greatest agricultural researcher of all time, George Washington Carver got his name from his slave owner’s family. He discovered hundreds of useful food stuffs and products using agriculture as his basic resource. We could use the likes of Carver to research the tens of thousands of uses of hemp.



HenryFordSoybeans originally traveled to the United States by ship when Samuel Bowen smuggled them from China in 1765. But it was Henry Ford who put them in cars. When the Great Depression hit, it hit farmers especially hard. Huge farm surpluses meant low crop prices and dwindling income. All of a sudden, Henry Ford’s best customers -American farmers -could no longer afford his cars, trucks and tractors. Ford knew that “if we want the farmer to be our customer, we must find a way to be his.” Figure out a way to use agricultural products in industrial manufacturing, and everyone would benefit. He put his chemists to work determining what products could be developed from plants. After testing numerous crop plants, they narrowed their focus to soybeans. Experimentation was soon rewarded with the discovery of soybean oil which made a superior auto body enamel. Soybean meal was converted to plastic used to make over 20 parts including horn buttons and gearshift knobs. By 1936, Ford was using a bushel of soybeans in every car that rolled off the line. But Henry Ford didn’t stop there. While his chefs developed a variety of tasty and nutritious

American-style foods from soy (including ice cream) Henry invented soybean “wool”, a fiber half the cost of sheep’s wool. Soon a fabric containing 25% soybean wool was being used to upholster many Ford autos. And on special occasions Mr. Ford would sport a suit made of soybean fiber. – Our thanks to Bill Shurtleff, Soyfoods Center. On a White Wave carton as pictured at left.
There is of course the rest of the Henry Ford story. He didn’t stop with a few car parts, Ford predicted that he would some day “grow automobiles from the soil.” Which he did after 12 years of research.

fordcar1Henry Ford’s plastic car p.99 – HEMP, Lifeline to the Future.
(Left), Popular Mechanics Magazine, Vol. 76, No. 6, December, 1941. Title: Auto Body Made of Plastics Resists Denting Under Hard Blows. (Text below)

fordcar2(Left, same 1941 article above). Henry Ford in straw hat. Here is the auto Henry Ford “grew from the soil.” Its plastic panels, with impact strength 10 times greater than steel, were made from flax, wheat, hemp, spruce pulp.





Quarter scale model of Ford plastic car and its welded tubular steel frame.

Popular Mechanics, 1941, text: “After twelve years of research, the Ford Motor Company has completed an experimental automobile with a plastic body. Although its design takes advantage of the properties of plastics, the streamline car does not differ greatly in appearance from its steel counterpart. The only steel in the hand-made body is found in the tubular welded frame on which are mounted 14 plastic panels, 3/16 inch thick. Composed of a mixture of farm crops and synthetic chemicals, the plastic is reported to withstand a blow 10 times as great as steel without denting. Even the Windows and windshield are of plastic. The total weight of the plastic car is about 2,000 pounds, compared with 3,000 pounds for a steel automobile of the same size. Although no hint has been given as to when plastic cars may go into production, the experimental model is pictured as a step toward materialization of Henry Ford’s belief that some day he would “grow automobiles from the soil.”

“When Henry Ford recently unveiled his plastic car, result of 12 years of research, he have the world a glimpse of the automobile of tomorrow, its tough panels molded under hydraulic pressure of 1,500 pounds per square inch from a recipe that calls for 70 percent of cellulose fibers from wheat straw, hemp, and sisal plus 30 percent resin binder. The only steel in the car is its tubular welded frame. The plastic car weighs a ton, 1,000 pounds lighter than a comparable steel car. Manufacturers are already talking of a low-priced plastic car to test the public’s taste by 1943.”

HPlastChipI was making energy pellets for a hemp museum demonstration of the ability of hemp to burn. They were round about 1/2 inch in diameter and 1/4 inch thick. I had an iron fry pan heating and pressed a pellet onto the hot surface with a dowel keeping it in motion. The pellet melted to 1/4 its thickness and looked like plastic (shown left). The branding was done with a hot metal hemp leaf button.

HoilThickPlasThe picture on the left shows the steps in making the plastic like substance to the right. I bought some imported hemp seed oil (left), filled the tall jar half full of the oil. With a cloth cover, I left it in a south window for two years to thicken in the sun. I then poured the thick oil in a thin layer on a cookie sheet and placed it in the sun for two days for a rubbery plastic sheet.