Researchers have developed a new hemp processing method that could provide producers with a more economic outlet for hemp crops. The Co-solvent Enhanced Lignocellulosic Fractionation process known as CELF deconstructs the plant into usable materials. Initially developed to be used in the production of biofuels, the process has shown significant promise for the hemp sector.
“CELF is an all chemical process. What that means is that it has very little moving parts. It’s very simple to construct. It’s very simple to run,” said Charles Cai, Associate Research Professor at UC Riverside. “This is a machine that we’ve been optimizing for the hemp space over the last couple of years. It will produce separate fractions of fiber, lignin, and sugars, as well as extractives.”
Development of the CELF process for hemp has been made possible by the Environmental Protection Agency’s People, Prosperity and the Planet Program. The initial aim of the project was to create an improved type of hempcrete. The new hemp processing method has been proven viable after being put through molecular dynamic simulation in the Titan supercomputer.
“We found that it did exactly what we expected. It deconstructed the plant so that we get separate fiber, sugars, extractives, and lignin and we didn’t produce any unwanted substances,” Cai noted. “We were able to push the final utilization of the plant to about 99 percent which is great.”
The new hemp processing method provides a separation of the plant for various purposes, maximizing the total use of the overall plant material. Because it is a chemical process, it eliminates several steps necessary for traditional, mechanical processing. The CELF process can accommodate wet plant material and larger particles.
“Unfortunately, a lot of current operations are not able to take advantage of economies of scale due to the nature of the labor that is involved in first getting the feedstock ready before it goes into the decortication process,” said Cai. “With the CELF process essentially, you could potentially eliminate all those steps if you’re driving towards certain end products.”
Cai and his team will now be working to commercialize the new hemp processing method and to make the technology more accessible to the industry.