Hemp fibers are probably something you associate more with ropes, sacks and baggy ethnic clothing than with luxury cars. But in a report on BMW’s new electric car, the i3, Bloomberg notes in passing that the car maker will line the door panels with hemp, as part of an interior design apparently aimed at making the i3’s drivers feel closer to nature and less likely to drain the battery in a speed-freak fit.
Companies have been using the organic raw material, which is made from the marijuana plant (usually with the cannabinoids stripped out), for decades. The Hemp Research Association estimates that the retail value in the US of hemp products came to $500m in 2012, even though the US remains the only industrialized country in which it’s illegal, except in two states, to grow even the drug-free form of hemp.
And while it hasn’t lost its hippie associations, hemp has been taken up by a number of fashion brands. Giorgio Armani started using hemp in an Emporio Armani collection in 1995, while Ralph Lauren makes hemp floor rugs. In 2010, Burberry designed a suit for actor Woody Harrelson out of hemp, and a Canadian company, CRAiLAR, tried to commercialize a process for developing softer materials from hemp fibers. (It ultimately decided to shift its attention to flax, due partly to the US’s hemp-growing ban.)
But it’s not just fashion designers who have been using hemp. At the end of last month the US Congressional Research Service published a paper by Renée Johnson, an agricultural policy specialist, entitled Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity (pdf), which says:
Some estimate that the global market for hemp consists of more than 25,000 products in nine submarkets: agriculture; textiles; recycling; automotive; furniture; food/nutrition/beverages; paper; construction materials; and personal care. For construction materials, such as hempcrete (a mixture of hemp hurds and lime products), hemp is used as a lightweight insulating material.
Hemp has been used in cars for some time, and not just for the door panels. Students at the University of Warwick even developed a race car in 2007 whose outer shell was made from hemp. James Meredith and his team believe that hemp can replace carbon fiber as a light-weight material for a car body. Perhaps BMW can think about that for its next electric car.