Why is hemp off the biofuel menu?
With recent reports downplaying the possibility of biofuels as a solution to climate change, Giulio Sica wonders why there has been no mention of hemp as an alternative crop
The Royal Society, the European Commission and the UK government have all managed, in the last few days, to take the wind out of the sails of the biofuel industry, publishing reports that suggest biofuels could be causing more harm than good, the crops not being as environmentally friendly as first thought, with the Commons environmental audit committee calling for a moratorium on biofuel targets until more research can be done.
What struck me as astonishing about these reports is that they all managed to ignore the one crop which has been successfully used for many years to create bioethanol and biodiesel, is environmentally friendlier to produce than sugar beet, palm oil, corn or any of the crops mentioned in the report and can grow in practically any temperate to hot climate leaving the ground in better condition than when it was planted.
That plant is hemp.
Last year, the Conservative MP David Maclean tabled a question to the then environment secretary, Ian Pearson, asking what assessment had been made about the potential to grow hemp as a biofuel crop in England. Pearson responded:
Research into the potential of hemp as a biofuel crop suggests it is not currently competitive compared to other sources of biomass. However, hemp does have a number of high-value end uses. For example, as a fibre crop it is used in car panels, construction and as horse bedding. In addition, hempseed oil is used in food, cosmetics and various industrial applications. As a result, there is little interest in this country at present in growing it for biofuel production.
So the government cannot point to ignorance of hemp’s uses, which makes hemp’s omission from any of the recent reports even more perplexing.
The fact that hemp does not need to have land cleared to grow it, grows faster than any of the crops currently used and leaves the ground in a better state when it is harvested should surely be enough for it to be considered a perfect crop to offset the carbon currently produced by fossil fuels and by the less efficient biofuels currently being so roundly criticised by the various official research bodies.
The influential Biodiesel magazine reported last year on the cultivation of hemp as a biofuel and it too could only point to its lack of economic competitiveness (due to its minimal production) as a reason for not seeing it as a viable biofuel. But surely if it was mass-produced, this one drawback could be overcome and its many benefits as an efficient biofuel could be harnessed.
As far as research and implementation of hemp for biofuel, the US is way ahead of Europe and there are a range of websites dedicated to the use of hemp as a fuel for cars.
In the UK, companies such as Hemp Global Solutions have been set up very much with climate change and the reduction of carbon emissions in mind, but there is little, if any, research in this country that has looked into the viability of the hemp plant as a fuel for cars.
So why was there not a single mention of this miracle crop, that, in addition to being able to be used as fuel, can also be used as paper, cloth, converted into plastic and is a rich food source containing high levels of protein?
Hemp Biofuels Could Smoke The Competition
Could Cannabis sativa be the industrial crop that saves the biofuel industry?
The debate over whether to legalize marijuana for either medicinal or recreational use is far from over, but new research has shown that cultivating the Cannabis plant for more practical purposes might solve the “food or fuel” conundrum once and for all.
Hemp, a THC-free cousin of the marijuana plant, has been used as a raw material to make fabric, rope, paper, and even sports cars. Now, researchers at University of Connecticut have found that industrial hemp has properties that make it viable and even attractive for producing biodiesel as well.
In laboratory tests, hemp biodiesel has shown a high efficiency of conversion (97 percent) and has properties that suggest it could be used at lower temperatures than any biodiesel currently on the market (Gizmag). At cold temperatures, molecules of some biofuels can aggregate and form crystals, plugging up vehicle fuel filters and limiting their commercial use.
According to Richard Parnas, a professor of chemical, materials, and biomolecular engineering at UConn, one of the most exciting things about hemp is that it grows “like a weed”, even in infertile soils. This would allow industrial hemp to be grown for biofuel production without taking up primary crop lands.
“If someone is already growing hemp they might be able to produce enough fuel to power their whole farm with the oil from the seeds they produce. The fact that a hemp industry already exists means that a hemp biodiesel industry would need little additional investment,” Parnas told Gizmag.
The problem? Currently, growing hemp (even though it contains less than 1 percent of the psychoactive elements that would make it desirable as a drug) is illegal in the United States.
Hopefully, this research will encourage the U.S. Government to reconsider its stance. In the meantime, Parnas hopes that the discovery will help to spur hemp biodiesel production in other parts of the world.
By Beth Buczynski