Environment

The University of Louisville’s Conn Center for Renewable Energy is planting more hemp this year at the school’s Belknap Campus.

This is officially the center’s second hemp crop — the first was planted last August and yielded a few dozen pounds of plants. This year, there will be two different varieties of hemp growing, as well as kenaf. Kenaf is an African plant used for fiber and oils.

“Having the crops grow on campus actually raises awareness about the research that we have going on at Conn Center,” said assistant director Andrew Marsh.

Hemp is a variety of cannabis, but has a different biochemical composition than its cousin, marijuana. As such, smoking hemp doesn’t get you high. Rather, industrial hemp is used largely for its oil and fibers. Kentucky used to grow a lot of hemp, but the crop was federally criminalized in the 1930s.

In 2013, the Kentucky General Assembly passed a bill creating a hemp pilot program in the state, in anticipation of federal law changes that would make it legal to grow hemp again. That happened in 2014, through language included in the Farm Bill.

Since then, the number of farmers planting hemp has increased every year. Earlier this year, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture announced it had approved 209 grower applications, allowing them to produce up to 12,800 acres of hemp for research purposes.

“The research that we’re doing in particular for biofuels and biomass conversion centers around catalyst research, so conversion of oils into chemicals and fuels, as well as converting plant matter into valuable resources, extracting sugars and doing lignocellulosic separations,” Marsh said.

(The latter is a technical term referring to separating the lignin and cellulosic parts of the plant.)

Marsh said hemp could help revitalize Kentucky’s agricultural sector, and the hope is the research at Conn will help students and scientists study the crop’s potential as a fuel.

“We’re unique in the fact that we’re undertaking research on hemp that’s converted to solve particular energy problems,” he said. “There are well-defined markets for fiber and other kind of traditional uses of hemp, including its oils. And what we’re doing is taking a very specific direction that corresponds to our research center’s mission, which is to find the answers for particular applications that have to do with renewable energy.”

According to a news release, in the past year, research that stemmed from the Conn Center’s hemp crop has led to two inventions, with patents and publications to follow.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Assignment Editor.