The burgeoning hemp fiber industry just got a big boost.
The Panda Texas Plains Hemp Gin will also be the first facility in the country to “cottonize” hemp fiber on a commercial scale for the U.S. textile industry and export customers, the company said. Panda Biotech has contracted for a 500,000-square-foot facility and surrounding 97-acre campus that was formerly the home of a General Motors assembly plant.
The company plans on installing the largest industrial hemp decorticating, or processing, equipment ever used to separate the outer bast fiber from the inner woody core, or hurd. At full production, the two, 10-ton-per-hour decorticators are expected to process close to 300 million pounds of industrial hemp per year.
The fiber will be refined for textile applications and the hurd will be processed for a variety of industrial purposes. Panda estimates the two decortication lines will generate approximately $30 million per year for Texas farmers.
The first processing line is currently being manufactured and is on schedule for delivery in December. Panda Biotech expects its Wichita Falls facility to commence partial operations in the first quarter of 2021 and both lines to be fully operational by the first quarter of 2022. Panda will fill contracts with Texas agricultural producers in the region for the 2021 growing season.
The company said the hemp gin represents a significant advancement in the domestic supply chain for textile-grade hemp fiber, as it is the first in the U.S. dedicated to the decortication and degumming, or cottonization, of hemp fiber on a commercial scale. The cottonization process removes the lignin that binds hemp fibers together in bundles and “opens” them for further refinement.
Once cottonized, the hemp fiber is ready to be seamlessly blended with other natural or man-made fibers–such as cotton, silk, wool and polyester–and spun into yarns that will be knit or woven into fabric. Panda Biotech has successfully cottonized hemp fiber on smaller versions of the equipment to be installed later this year at its Wichita Falls campus. The fiber was subsequently spun into yarn, knit into fabric, printed, and cut and sewn into finished apparel.
The company said it is working with several brands to develop yarn blends in multiple counts for sustainable and innovative textiles that will use Panda Biotech’s proprietary cottonization process.
At full production, Panda Biotech expects its Wichita Falls facility to annually produce more than 35 million pounds of apparel-grade, cottonized hemp fiber suitable for use in a variety of yarns for knit and woven textiles.
“The facility we’re moving into boasts 11 acres under roof and enough land to allow for expansion into strategic, new business endeavors that Panda is planning,” Scott Evans, executive vice president of Panda Biotech, said. “In addition to the local agricultural community, city and county officials have been outstanding to work with and supportive of what they expect to be a global calling card for Wichita Falls as the hub of the next multi-billion-dollar industry.”
Panda Biotech has helped to jumpstart the Texas hemp industry by donating 60 tons of free hemp fiber seed to Texas agricultural producers in May. Producers then planted hemp fiber fields in every agricultural region across Texas. Panda donated the seed to help farmers gain experience from their first trial crop of industrial hemp, including an understanding of how the hemp seed responded to their local soil and climate conditions. Panda Biotech created the seed donation program in collaboration with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.
The company cited the sustainable aspect of hemp, noting that it requires 70 percent less water than most major crops used in the manufacture of textiles. In addition, hemp requires few herbicides, fungicides or pesticides, and has significant soil remediation qualities.
The U.S. hemp industry benefited from the passage of the federal Hemp Farming Act of 2018. Panda Biotech was subsequently formed after the provisions of the Act were incorporated in the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill.
The global industrial hemp market has been projected to grow to $26.6 billion by 2025 from $4.6 billion in 2019, driven mainly by eco-conscious consumers who increasingly want environmentally friendly products and services.