Alta. offers more funding for hemp processing plant

Researchers and supervisors in charge of Alberta’s innovative yet finicky hemp-processing machine hope new funds will help fix some of its kinks.

The fibre-processing plant, located at InnoTech Alberta’s Vegreville facility, will receive provincial funds of $800,000 to fix pinch-points and improve data collection.

Billed as state-of-the-art, the 13,000 sq. foot facility can separate the inner and outer fibres of hemp or flax straw. Such materials can be used to create textiles, animal bedding, paper, construction blocks and bioplastics, among others. Materials from the plant are sold to start-up businesses creating those hemp- or flax-based products.

While the province expects the machine will pave the way to grow the hemp industry, the seven-year-old facility has been experiencing issues.

For instance, the machine’s guillotine that cuts bales has been having trouble, said Byron James, supervisor of the research farm and pilot facilities at InnoTech’s Vegreville location. To improve the guillotine, plant operators plan to add a bale un-roller.

As well, he said they plan to address problems in which one cup-conveyor has a tendency to plug and find a fix for a spot in the plant where materials fall out of the equipment, forcing operators to manually clean it up.

The way dust is handled has also been cumbersome.

James said operators have at times been washing dust bags every 10 minutes. To change that, they will install a semi-trailer system that collects dust. Operators hope they will need to empty it only once per week.

“There have been some things that could have been done better in the plant,” he said. “It’s caused some grief, so we are going to fix what we call pinch-points that slow us down.”

But it’s not just physical aspects of the machine that need fixing. James said the funds will be used to improve data collection.

He said operators will be installing many sensors to collect data on bale weights, bale moisture and fibre cleanliness, among others. The data is used for research and development purposes.

“It was very difficult for us to collect some of that data manually,” he said. “We’ll be able to work with our customers to provide that data more comprehensively than we were before.”

Like other machines, James said the plant has gone through typical wear-and-tear. As well, because the plant is unlike anything else out there, operators faced a steep learning curve.

He said a lot of interest has been expressed from industry in building a commercial plant like InnoTech’s, but someone has yet to step forward.

“I think it’s working,” he said. “There is a lot more interest now than there was seven years ago.”

The province hopes the new funding will improve the quality and efficiency of the facility, as well as ensure Alberta leads in growing the hemp industry.

“The improvements in production efficiency and quality will provide companies with the raw material they need to create high-quality, eco-friendly products while also providing further opportunities for Alberta farmers,” said Alberta Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier, in a news release.

The plant was established in 2010, receiving an initial investment of $3.9 million from the province. In the past year, 34 new hemp fibre-based products have been introduced to the market.

In 2016, the Canadian hemp industry was valued at $340 million. The province anticipates it will reach a market value of $1 billion by 2023.

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