CE-CERT Student Competition Team Create Sustainable Building Materials from Hemp

In early 2019, UCR’s Chemical Engineering undergraduate students, Albert Fernandez, Zachary Lyons, and Matthew Marquis and graduate student, Priyanka Singh were awarded a $5,000 grant from non-profit organization VentureWell to support newly formed InnovaCan, a for-profit technology spin-off from UCR. Leading this team was UCR Adjunct Professor and Assistant Research Engineer at CE-CERT, Dr. Charles Cai. The group received this grant in response to their innovative work in developing a hemp processing method that aims to apply new green chemistry techniques to convert industrial hempinto sustainable building and packing materials. InnovaCan’s goal is to shift entirely from unsustainable, imported raw materials to domestically manufactured advanced hemp-based concrete (hempcrete), hemp-based board (hemp board), and hemp-based adhesive resins utilizing their newest green pulping technology known as Co-Solvent Enhanced Lignocellulosic Fractionation process (CELF). CELF technology has the ability to provide multiple high revenue streams from extractives to fiber products and promises rapid returns for domestic agricultural operations that are interested in growing and processing industrial hemp as it minimizes processing complexity and vastly improves economies of scale. Furthermore, it is inherently carbon neutral as its energy requirements can be obtained from waste heat or biomass heating – eliminating the emissions of toxic chemicals and CO2.

Now with a successful demonstration of the process under their belt, three of the four students are continuing development of the hempcrete after graduation with the InnovaCan team under the direction of CE-CERT inventor, Dr. Charles Cai.

More About Hemp:
The passing of the 2018 Agriculture Improvement Act decriminalized hemp at the federal level, which has produced a surge in interest in hemp among many American farmers. This in turn, has led to the fairly new crop experiencing an increase of 220% from the prior year.1 With this surge arose the increasing need for new farming approaches and technology. In addition to the hemp boom, there has been a rise in demand for green and sustainable construction materials – in hopes to displace conventional practices and ensure better performance, cost competitiveness, and the ability to reduce toxic waste generation.

Advantageous factors of hemp for use as sustainable building materials include its naturally light weight, temperature and moisture regulating capabilities, and natural fire and microbial resistance – making it an ideal renewable feedstock for modern construction materials such as insulation

*Photo: Zachary Lyons, Aaron Allaga, Matthew Marquis, Albert Fernandez, and Charles Cai. Not Pictured: Priyanka Singh