Everyone who drives a vehicle is aware there is a growing problem with fossil fuel depletion. As the price at the pumps continue to rise, the law of supply and demand, as well as many top analysts predict our crude oil resources are running out. Crude oil is not a renewable resource, so once it’s gone… it’s gone for good. After nearly 150 years of drilling and fracking, fossil fuel experts believe oil production could be nearing its peak and the hunt is on for a viable replacement.
Henry Ford was the first to create a vehicle which used hemp biofuels. His Model T, or “Tin Lizzie”, ran on either gasoline or hemp-based fuels. However, with the discovery of large crude oil deposits in the early 20th century his idea for a sustainable, plant-based automobile fuel fizzled out.
Using industrial hemp, researchers may be back on Ford’s trail to unlocking a greener path to renewable fuels which not only provides a valuable resource but helps repair environmental damage in the process.
The overuse of chemical pesticides, herbicides and a wide variety of other agrochemicals in the United States has left the soil and water horribly contaminated and toxic in many instances, effecting all future crops. A study published in 2016 in the journal Frontiers in Public Health warns residue from agricultural pesticides can be found in a large number of common products including water, wine, fruit juices, and even animal feeds. In fact, pesticide residues were even found in human breast milk.
While detected levels were below “safe limits” according to safety standards, experts fear these numbers may be underestimated. Pesticide exposure commonly occurs through contact with the skin (lotions, cosmetics), ingestion (fruits, vegetables), and inhalation (the air, smoking). As endocrine disruptors, these chemicals can mimic the human hormones, estrogen and testosterone, and inhibit the production and metabolization of the natural hormones. The rise in autism and ADHD, as well as, instances of cancer have also been linked to higher consumption of pesticides.
Mother Nature’s Sponge
Hemp, or the industrial version of cannabis sativa, can be used for bioremediation, a process to restore soil from toxic pollution. Essentially, as a phytoremediator, hemp pulls the toxins out of the soil like a sponge. Farmers in other parts of the world use hemp to restore their fields, hemp was even used to remove radioactive agents from the ground following the radioactive disaster at Chernobyl.
Further research in 2012 showed hemp effectively absorbed cadmium from the soil as well. Astonishingly hemp can clean up a broad range of toxins in the soil including metals, pesticides, crude oil, and toxins in landfills.
However, just as we wouldn’t want to consume an apple sprayed with RoundUp, the hemp grown to detoxify these soils must not be used for human consumption either. Fortunately, creating a green, environmentally-friendly hemp biofuel from the harvested toxic plants almost seems poetic.
Enter Hemp Biofuel
Researchers at the University of Connecticut found the seeds from cannabis sativa, or industrial hemp, can be used to create a viable, sustainable diesel fuel. One researcher stated that most hemp farmers today probably produce enough hemp to create enough fuel to power their entire farm. Now, with this harvested toxic crop producers can make two varieties of biofuel:
Hemp biodiesel is made from hemp seed oil and can be used in any conventional diesel engine. UConn’s research showed hemp oil had a 97% conversion rate into biodiesel and passed all lab tests. Imagine a fleet of transport trucks powered by fuel made by a plant which left the soil in better condition than it found it.
Meanwhile, the rest of the plant can be used to produce ethanol or methanol. Sometimes referred to as “hempanol” or “hempoline” this type of fuel is made through a process called cellulolysis which ferments and distills the hemp to extract ethanol. Methanol, on the other hand, is produced from the woody pulp matter in the stalks of plants. Creating methanol from hemp is done through a process of dry distillation.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Hemp Biofuels
As a carbon neutral resource, the plant ingests carbon dioxide (CO2) very quickly, even faster than trees. Plus, carbon dioxide emissions from biodiesel is reabsorbed through the process of photosynthesis in plants. So, in addition to pulling toxins from the soil, the hemp plant can essentially “scrub” CO2 from the air we breathe.
When growing hemp, it returns about 70% of its required nutrients back into the soil, which means this crop requires much less fertilizer to grow. Less fertilizers means cleaner water supplies.
Creating a renewable resource crop which can restore the soil to health, pull toxins from the ground, air and water, while creating a viable energy source may sound like the American Farmer’s dream come true, however, it doesn’t come without its own set of challenges.
A Few Disadvantages
Unfortunately, hemp production in the United States declined rapidly with a growing demand for synthetic fiber, and then the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 added to the villainous reputation of cannabis sativa. Although the Farm Bill of 2014 allows the industrial crop today, the infrastructure for producing hemp biofuels is not yet established. This creates a major hurdle to overcome.
Additionally, because hemp can grow virtually anywhere, some worry about the deforestation already occurring in some parts of the world for other feedstocks. Could hemp and the pursuit of fuel, cause further damage to habitat as humans look for new places to grow the crop?
A Greener Future is Possible
With the Senate unanimously approving the Hemp Farm Bill, clearly the lawmakers are recognizing the potential of the industry and a need to bolster this once highly regarded industrial crop. Supporters are hoping these measures will once again help move the United States back into contention in the hemp industry. Hemp biofuels could help lead the nation’s economy from a petroleum-based economy to a hemp-based economy, providing a sustainable energy resource which leaves the planet in better condition than it found it.