Students and faculty at Penn State Behrend are doing research on using hemp as an additive to plastic.
In the plastics lab at Penn State Behrend, professor Brian Young is leading a small group of students who are exploring ways to use hemp fibers as an additive to plastic.
It's a project that would have seemed unlikely just a few years ago.
That was before February 2014, when President Barack Obama signed the U.S. Farm Bill, which established industrial hemp as a legal crop, distinct from marijuana, clearing the way for universities and state departments of agriculture to conduct research projects into the use of hemp.
Hemp, which was used since the earliest days of the United States to make rope, grain bags, rugs and clothing, was banned from the farm fields of Pennsylvania in 1933 and was outlawed nationally four years later.
The problem for hemp, once endorsed by William Penn as a crop that should be grown by all Pennsylvania farmers, is that it is a variant of the cannabis sativa plant that produces marijuana.
Never mind that it's genetically distinct and contains only a negligible trace of the psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. It wasn't until the 1960s that scientists found a way to verify if a farmer was growing industrial hemp or marijuana, according to a report from the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council.
The fact that industrial hemp is a distinct crop from marijuana seems to be settled science in Young's classroom.
Young and his students are focused instead on the potential for using hemp as an additive to plastics and looking at how that might affect the properties of the plastic and its ability to break down over time.
This investigation, which will serve as a three-semester project for a handful of plastics engineering technology students, follows a study that examined the use of switch grass as a plastics additive. That project was funded by Ernst Conservation Seeds, near Meadville.
While Ernst was able to provide the switch grass needed for those experiments, Young said the 90 pounds of industrial hemp he's using in his experiments had to be purchased from a supplier in Canada.
Financial backing for the study is coming from an unlikely source, a company owned by 21-year-old Trevor Grode of Erie, a sophomore at Babson College near Boston.
Grode, who founded his company, Revive Hemp LLC, about a year ago, said he's never visited a hemp field, but is fascinated by the crop's possibilities.
"I always wanted to make a lot of money and I didn't want to feel bad about it," said Grode, whose company has the financial backing of family, friends and investors.
Reading about industrial hemp left him feeling impressed by the possibilities of a crop that farmers could grow on marginal land and that could be used for hundreds of different purposes, including insulation, rope and as a building material.
"I thought 'this is too good to be true,' " Grode said. "I realized what a great way this could be to make money and make the world a better place."
The same thought has crossed the minds of some students at Behrend.
Several of them, including Fred Birkel, a junior from Pittsburgh, said they were intrigued by the idea of using hemp to create plastics that won't live forever in a landfill.
"I feel like that could be pretty important," Birkel said.
There are other potential advantages of using hemp in plastics, Young said, including the possibility of reducing reliance on foreign oil, which is used to make plastic resin.
The work being done at Behrend isn't as simple as mixing some hemp fibers into plastic resin on its way to an injection molding machine.
There's a long list of variables to be studied in how the hemp-enhanced plastic performs and a certain amount of study needed to determine the best way to chemically treat the fibers so they bond with the plastic, said Cabel Ericson, a 28-year-old senior from Erie.
Young is convinced the project will be worth the investment of time and money.
"If I didn't think so we wouldn't be doing it," he said.
The work being done at Behrend is likely one of many hemp research projects that will take place in Pennsylvania. The state Department of Agriculture is seeking applications for a pilot program that will help fund hemp research projects.
Grode said he's enthusiastic both about the jobs that hemp can create in western Pennsylvania and the opportunities it might present for farmers in the state that was once second in the nation for hemp production.
But he's careful not to overstate the potential.
"There is a lot of overhype in the hemp industry, people thinking it's a cure-all when it's part of a larger solution," he said. "It's not going to cure cancer, but it could create a lot of domestic jobs."