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Researchers develop super-absorbent material from hemp that could revolutionize diapers: 'We are passionate about the potential'

"This should have been taken care of a long time ago."

"This should have been taken care of a long time ago."

Photo Credit: Purdue University

The saying "waste not, want not" has been given greater meaning thanks to researchers out of Purdue University driven by the want to leave behind less waste for future generations. This drive led to the development of a superabsorbent material made from hemp that could revolutionize the hygiene, food packaging, and agricultural industries. 

Senay Simsek, a Purdue University professor and the head of the Department of Food Science, led the research. She holds the Dean's Chair in Food Science and leads a team of researchers in the College of Agriculture.

"There are so many challenges for future generations," Simsek said in a conversation with The Cool Down, "but step-by-step we can help future generations to tackle some of those issues."

Traditional superabsorbent materials used for water retention in agriculture, hygiene, and food-packaging products are typically made from synthetic polymers, primarily polyacrylate-based compounds, which are extremely damaging to the environment. 

Traditional superabsorbent polymers typically require a lot of energy to produce, contributing to their negative environmental impact. They are also made from nonrenewable, raw materials like petroleum-based products, which are also used to make plastics. That includes many brands of diapers, held tight against the skin of babies.

Then there's the waste from the single-use products made from the material. According to the World Economic Forum, over 300,000 disposable diapers are incinerated or sent to landfills every minute. Non-biodegradable plastic menstrual products generate more than 200,000 tons of waste per year and take approximately 500 to 800 years to decompose.

"This widespread use exacerbates their environmental impact due to the volume of waste generated and the universal nature of the problems they cause," Simsek said.

This is where the Purdue University researchers' superabsorbant hemp comes in. Simsek explained to TCD that hemp has a high and unique cellulose content that is super-attracted to water and can be opened with their technology. This greatly enhances its ability to soak up and hold moisture, which is crucial for applications that demand high absorbency. 

She further explained that it is unique in that, as opposed to current materials used in these applications, it is highly tunable. This allows them to modify it to be either slow or fast absorbing, depending on the need. For example, she explained that in meat packaging, you want the water to absorb slowly as it is released versus sucking it out of the system, which is preferable in other applications. 

She detailed that when used in water retention for agriculture, the traditional non-biodegradable polyacrylates often form crystals that can damage roots and cause disease within the plants. 

Their hemp material not only avoids these issues but also goes on the surface of the soil, allowing the water to remain on the surface. This means it actually goes to the plants instead of the groundwater system, making it especially helpful in drought-impacted areas. 

"We are passionate about the potential of our product to make a significant environmental impact," Simsek said earlier in a release. "By introducing a commercial product that helps save our planet, we aim to lead the way in sustainable innovation — helping to heal the planet one application at a time."

When tested, the material was found to be 40-80% biodegradable after five and a half months, and its absorption ability was comparable to commercial polyacrylate. Simsek has applied for a patent for the superabsorbent hemp-based materials through the Purdue Innovates Office of Technology Commercialization.

When asked what she wanted to do first, Simsek told TCD she has a special passion for agriculture and first wants to scale up and use the material as a water retentor to help feed our growing population safely and cleanly.

"I will be honored to do that," she said. 

She has the passion, she has the product, and the patent is pending — so what next? Now, she's looking for partnerships. 

"I am designed to do research," she said, before further explaining that her biggest hurdle currently is scaling up. She needs to scale up to be able to produce the superabsorbent material in large quantities equivalent to commercial production. 

She said her ideal partners would be food packaging companies, hygiene product companies, and agricultural sector companies. In short, any leading producers and users of current super-absorbent technologies. 

She also pointed out that people at sustainability groups and some non-profit organizations are working at a smaller scale to keep the world clean for future generations and thus partnering in that direction could go a long way too. 

"I am open to ideas," she told TCD before saying that really everyone can help. 

As Simsek said simply and poignantly, "This should have been taken care of a long time ago." But it's better late than never. 

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