One of the least recognized casualties of global population growth is the destruction - some would say desecration - of old growth forests. There simply isn’t enough agricultural land, using current unsustainable practices, to feed this growing population, or enough useable timber to house a world population that has exploded to beyond 7.6 billion souls at the time of writing.
As long as there are standing forests in the way of agricultural land to grow food, hungry native populations will clear it, often sacrificing the precious timber in the process. For other populations, for example in the sub-Saharan region of Africa, deforestation has led to a downward spiral, resulting in the use of the remaining wood for cooking fuel.
And as long as there are transportation means available, developed and developing countries will gobble up all the timber that can be shipped from forests that are further and further away from their eventual use in construction.
Further still, despite perennial forecasts of “the paperless society” the use of paper and packaging products in business has continued to grow at an ever-increasing rate. Thank you Amazon.
So the tragic fact remains that as long as standing old growth forests are available, their precious sustaining capabilities will be ravaged for agriculture, fuel, construction, and paper, outstripping by orders of magnitude the ability of the Earth and its supposedly ingenious inhabitants to replace it.
So what hope is there for our precious forests, which absorb most of the CO2 that it is possible to absorb, man-made and otherwise; produce all of the oxygen we need for survival; and act as a watershed for crucial fresh water?
There is actually a glimmer of hope, which just got a lot brighter, and it comes in the form of a ground-breaking technology out of Australia named Zeoform. It involves the “nano-and micro-fibrillation of cellulose particles” into a paste that creates steel-like bonds when cured. These contacts, held together in a steely grip by natural bonds, create a new, hardy, 100% sustainable and renewable material that can replace lumber - every stick of it - currently used for construction.
Here's how the Zeoform process works, harnessing the power of nature's own chemistry.
The “fibrillation” refers to the process of milling cellulose particles such that their edges fray into “fibrils” or very fine fibres, creating infinitesimal contacts between them when they are dewatered into a paste, or “putty”. The magic of natural chemistry then takes over, and the hydrogen and oxygen in the cellulose create a bond (‘hydroxyl bonding”) between the fibril cross-contacts upon curing. The resulting millions of fibril bonds per cm2 create a virtually indestructible finished material, with a myriad of random orientations, unlike lumber, which has a distinctive grain in the singular orientation of the original tree’s growth, making it vulnerable to splitting and warping. “Zeoformed” fibres have no such vulnerability, having completely randomized fibre orientations.
After 30 years of in-depth research into the Zeoform process, its inventor, Martin Ernegg, has demonstrated that the most effective raw material to turn into super-strong finished products is hemp fibres. Virtually indestructible in everyday use, yet fully bio-degradable, Zeoform materials manufactured from industrial hemp promise to replace wood for construction and paper, and most plastics for reusable and recyclable containers and packaging.
To complete the virtuous cycle, industrial hemp also produces abundant valuable seeds, which in turn produce a prized flour for health products, and oils with equally valuable properties for promoting health. In recent history, as the harmless and definitely non-psychoactive industrial hemp has broken free of the paranoia surrounding the "war on drugs", these health promoting products have created the main value from hemp cultivation.
In summary then, the overwhelming benefit of the Zeoform breakthrough appears to be that industrial hemp, one of the fastest-growing seed crops on the planet, could create local prosperity by combining the value of the seed harvest with the value of their fibrous stalks, which are currently primarily a waste residue that is ploughed back into the field. The paste produced as described above would be form-cured into a tough, flexible panel that could be engineered into floorboards, and eventually - hopefully very soon - into structural insulated panels(SIPs) to build millions of prefabricated homes.
As a new material, adding incremental value to a crop, it will create more wealth for the farmer, but then create prosperity through more jobs from manufacturing the panels, and still more jobs – and shelter – from the use of the panels in construction of homes locally, close to the source of the hemp harvest.
The Eureka Moment is the realization that hemp is a hardy, fast-growing crop that can grow many feet high in a season, almost anywhere vegetation can grow on the planet! While it is unlikely that the clearing of old growth forests will end in the immediate future, creating local industries globally where industrial hemp is the greatest value-added crop could slow the process down for agriculture, eventually eliminate it for lumber and paper, and create a level of renewal and local prosperity that reverses the poverty driven desecration of forests. In the process it could dramatically reduce our dependency on plastic.
On a personal note, when I first encountered the technology, in early 2015, I frankly rejected it as “highly unlikely” that such solid materials could have been formed from cellulose and water alone, with some energy input. Unfortunately the individual who showed it to me didn’t understand the chemistry, otherwise I would no doubt have been alerted – and probably highly motivated to act – more than three years ago. I’m kicking myself now, but rapidly in a forward direction, and planning to create a whole new meaning for the term “cottage industry”.
May 22nd, 2018