Kenaf Fiber Uses – a Legal Alternative to Hemp

While we continue the fight to make it legal to grow industrial hemp across the country, we should look to kenaf fiber uses as an alternative.

Because it is a close relative to hemp, the properties are quite similar. Perhaps the biggest benefit at this time is that it is completely legal to grow and process into products. As laws change it will be easy to switch to industrial hemp because of the similarities.

There are significant differences to the growing cycle, cost per ton and capabilities of hemp and kenaf such as:

  • Seed and leaf shapes are different
  • Kenaf bast fiber is roughly equal to a softwood (pine) fiber. Softwood fibers are the high quality type commonly used in commercial scale paper production
  • Hemp bast fiber is much longer and stronger
  • Kenaf yields can be 3 times the yields for hemp
  • Politically, kenaf is current a legal crop while not all states can currently grow industrial hemp

Last year we researched the differences between kenaf and hemp, aside from the legal issues, and learned:

Each plant contains fiber, but have different ratios between the bast and the core. Kenaf stalks consist of 40% bast fiber and 60% core fiber. The bast fiber can be compared to softwood, which is a high quality fiber typically used for commercial paper production. The core is used for absorbent materials such as oil spill cleanup material. It is also used for products in the oil and gas drilling industries such as Lost Circulation Material to maintain the lubricants.

On the other hand, hemp stalks consist of 25% bast, or long fiber and 75% core fiber. The bast fiber is longer and stronger than that of its legal cousin, and is typically used for textiles and rope making. The core of both kenaf and hemp are also one of the most absorbent materials on the planet. 

Let’s examine some of the kenaf fiber uses.

Kenaf fiber uses for fiberglass:

Larry Dickinson, president of 3F, is working to develop natural fibers like kenaf to be used as a substitute for fiberglass. There are currently some issues with kenaf as a direct replacement for fiberglass however, with some modifications, kenaf fiber does provide an alternative:

Larry believes that this plant will eventually be a future fiber crop for structural composites manufacturers. This is due in part to two potential products that come from Kenaf. Larry believes natural fibers will be able to completely replace fiberglass in many Fiberglass Reinforced Plastic (FRP) products.

 Kenaf fiber uses for livestock feed:

Kenaf fiber uses also include providing livestock feed. In a scholarly paper written at Purdue University entitled Kenaf Production: Fiber, Feed, and Seed, we learn:

Although kenaf is usually considered a fiber crop, the entire kenaf plant, stalk (core and bark), and leaves, can be used as a livestock feed. Research indicates that it has high protein content Kenaf meal, used as a supplement in a rice ration for sheep, compared favorably with a ration containing alfalfa. It has also been determined that chopped kenaf is a suitable feed source for Spanish (meat-type) goats.

Kenaf fiber uses in the auto industry:

The kenaf plant benefits a variety of industries including the automobile industry. Just three years ago Ford announced the planned use of kenaf fibers in their Ford Escape:

Following Ford’s recent announcement that they will use recycled plastic bottles for seat fabrics in the upcoming Focus Electric, the company’s efforts to increase the use of sustainable materials continues with the news that they will use kenaf plant fiber material for interior door bolsters for the new Escape.

Kenaf, blended with polypropylene in a 50-50 mixture, will reduce the door component’s weight by 25% compared with conventional materials, while use of the plant fiber, Ford claims, will offset 300,000 pounds of oil-based resins annually in North America.

Kenaf fiber uses in the paper product industry. Kenaf stalks consist of 40% bast fiber and 60% core fiber. The bast fiber can be compared to softwood, which is a high quality fiber typically used for commercial paper production.

This barely scratches the surface of kenaf fiber uses. In the well-researched and documented paper IMPROVEMENT OF KENAF YARN FOR APPAREL APPLICATIONS by Ting Zhang B.S., Beijing University of Chemical Technology, the author describes a number of uses including:

  • Natural fiber/plastic compounds, based on kenaf, can replace glass-reinforced plastics in many applications, such as automotive industry, packaging, and construction/housing.
  • Pellets made from a kenaf/plastic compound can be molded into commercial food storage containers and virtually any other product now made of plastic.
  • Kenaf/plastic compounds, molded into lightweight panels, can replace wood and wood-based products in many applications.
  • One unique feature of Kenaf Absorb is that it absorbs oil before taking on water; once oil is absorbed, the product floats on the surface, which makes collection easier.

While the attention continues to be on the economic value of industrial hemp, we do want to bring attention to kenaf fiber uses. In fact, in our North Carolina plant, the largest decortication plant in the United States, our initial production run will be with harvested kenaf plants.

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