Frontlines | Harvesting Car Bodies and Airplane Wings

Courtesy of the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota
 Hemp (Cannabis sativa)

These days, farmers grow mainly food. But if the University of Toronto's Mohini Sain is right, in two to five years they'll also be growing material for auto bodies, airplane wings, football helmets, and artificial heart valves. Crops such as hemp, flax, wheat, and corn stalks can produce materials that are said to be as strong or stronger than steel, lighter than fiberglass, and more energy efficient, as well as capable of reducing petrochemical consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. This is accomplished through a process known as nanobiocomposition.

The notion of introducing 15-nm cellulose fibers into bioplastic material made from those crops is not new; the challenge has been producing industrial quantities at a reasonable cost. Sain, a professor of chemical engineering, says an important advance...

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