ELM GROVE — It started with Murray State University saying yes in 2014 to then-Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer when he offered some just-acquired industrial hemp seeds for planting.
Now, Murray State’s involvement with this plant is about to make an impact on the Murray and Calloway County’s economy with the Fibonacci manufacturing facility east of Murray. The new business is about to offer employment that eventually is expected to have a peak workforce of 50. This will turn harvested hemp into what Fibonacci founder Greg Wilson dubs a new timber called HempWood that will allow for the manufacturing of hardwood flooring, furniture and other products.
And probably to no one’s surprise, Murray State has part of every step.
“Murray State answered the call and that’s because we thought it was the right thing to do,” said Dr. Tony Brannon, dean of the university’s Hutson School of Agriculture, as he spoke during Monday’s ribbon cutting of the Fibonacci plant. “But we’ve answered that call many times within this region.”
When Wilson began asking Brannon and others for help about four years ago, the university responded not just through the Hutson School but in other areas as well. On this alone, at least six different Murray State factions have had a hand in Fibonacci not just landing in Murray but getting the plant constructed.
This includes the university’s chemistry department, which has been assisting Wilson with perfecting the glue that will provide the adhesive for the products that will result.
“Really from the beginning, Greg has had a vision for a product that’s very unique to this region and he came to us looking for some expertise on how to create the adhesive,” said Dr. Kevin Miller, a professor at Murray State. “For me, this personally has been quite gratifying. Back in May, when our department first became involved with this project, this was basically just an empty space. Now, they have the giant press in here and we have the hemp materials with the actual adhesive that we formulated at Murray State.”
The university’s engineering and advertising students have also contributed to this project, along with numerous sections of the Hutson School. University administration has also offered assistance, from time to time.
Wilson added that the adhesive is eco-friendly.
“We’re taking the plant fiber, or stalk, from the plant after people have used the tops of the plant, then we are converting that by using a bio-based adhesive into the wood composite,” he said. “The key to this is density because the density of the composite determines the hardness and stability. We’re taking something that grows in six months and we are able to out-perform a tropical plant (namely bamboo) that grows in five to 10 years.
“So, in order to deal with agricultural hemp on a national level and state level, you have to get a license from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, and this license requires you to do a pilot program where you partner up with a university. I told Dean Brannon what my intentions were four years ago and he said, ‘Come on down and let’s figure this out.’ So we have used agricultural hemp (grown in Calloway County and other communities), as well as being introduced to Murray State alumni (including Phil McCallon, now the project manager of the HempWood plant) to get the raw material we need to do the prototype which has now turned into this facility.”