Architects of a Sustainable Hemp Industry

For centuries, the hemp plant has been recognized as a robust and renewable source of raw material for a host of purposes. However, for decades United States law conflated hemp with marijuana and it fell out of use. Now, with such restrictions lifted, hemp has a bright future as a sustainable, high-value raw material for consumer and industrial products.

“Realizing that potential will require a lot of fundamental planning and development work, conceiving and establishing systems and platforms essential for building robust agricultural- and manufacturing-focused hemp industries,” says Ronald Kander, PhD, associate provost for applied research and dean of Kanbar College of Design, Engineering and Commerce. Success will require the convergence of a broad array of expertise, perspectives and tools—ranging from plant biology, biochemistry and textile engineering to economics and systems management.

“On the scientific and technical side,” Dr. Kander explains, “that work ranges from materials science research on the hemp plant to the engineering processes that will be used to transform hemp biomass into new materials with unique mechanical, physical or biochemical properties.

“On the business and economic side,” he continues, “that work includes characterizing high-value hemp-based products that have well-defined markets; conceptualizing business models and supply chain systems and describing the infrastructure necessary to support a growing industry.”

Jefferson is pursuing an array of research and development initiatives that will help make that happen, driven by transdisciplinary teams of faculty and students from engineering, materials science, industrial design, business and other fields. Those teams, in turn, are collaborating with researchers and practitioners from industry and government to conceive an integrated system of new materials, processes, products, business models and regulatory frameworks for a robust and sustainable industry.

“In this context, when we use the word ‘sustainable,’ we are aiming not just for environmental sustainability,” Dr. Kander notes. “We are helping create a hemp industry that is also sustainable economically, technically and in socio-political terms.” Toward this definition of a sustainable hemp industry, Kander and his research colleagues are developing a comprehensive Systems Dynamic Model for a complete supply-to-process-to-sale operation. “We intend this model to be an open-source resource that researchers, policymakers, companies and investors can use to simulate results based on their individual data sets and criteria,” he explains.

Gurinder Kaur, a PhD candidate in textile science and engineering, is a member of Kander’s team. For her doctoral work, she is developing the supply and environmental facets of the comprehensive Systems Dynamic Model. She is using two hemp-derived products now in development as the objects of the model. “As a former manager focusing on sustainable industry supply chains,” Kaur explains, “I am enthusiastic because the simulated supply chain model we are developing will create a risk-free method for companies to test the impact of state policy changes—and to do so without fear of losing valuable time and assets.”

In addition to guiding the University’s overall initiative, Dr. Kander is directly engaged in policy-focused work: he chairs the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s Hemp Steering Committee, which is developing a strategic plan for a Pennsylvania-based Industrial Hemp Center of Excellence. And, in parallel with those efforts, Jefferson is helping to develop a vision for the education, training and workforce-development infrastructure necessary to power a growing hemp industry. 

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