Hemp Biofuels: Hemp’s Energy Potential

Could hemp be the solution?


One of the great challenges of the 21stcentury is to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Coal, gas, and oil have a finite supply, and with increasing demand for energy in the world, the existing estimates may be optimistic. As it happens, fossil fuels will likely run out within the next half-century.

Then there is the small matter of the environmental destruction caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Most of the available evidence suggests that climate change is real, and our liberal usage of oil, gas, and coal have contributed greatly to the crisis. It is believed that we need to leave at least 65% of known fossil fuel reserves untouched to avoid keeping global temperature rise below two degrees.

As a consequence, ‘green’ or renewable energy sources are no longer a ‘niche’ thing; they are essential to our survival! By developing alternative renewable fuels, we reduce the vulnerability of fuel supply, and may at least delay the destruction of the planet. Biofuels are derived from living matter and have been championed as a viable solution to our current energy woes.

Hemp is one of the world’s oldest cultivated plants with a history dating back several thousand years. Hemp biofuel is potentially a game-changer, which is why the delay in implementing it as a solution is puzzling.

The Biofuel Revolution

Biofuels have been around for even longer than automobiles, but inexpensive diesel and gasoline, plus mankind’s propensity for self-destruction and greed, has kept them on the sidelines. It is only now, when oil prices hit crazy peaks and troughs, when climate change is a major crisis, and when we face the specter of running out of fossil fuels, that biofuel is being seriously considered.

Flights, shipping, and road travel alone account for around 25% of the globe’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is mainly because transport relies so heavily on fossil fuels. Biofuel involves the use of feedstocks, plant material, or other organic matter, to create a renewable source of energy.

It is a great idea in theory but has hit plenty of roadblocks in practice. As a result, we need to triple our current biofuel output to meet the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) targets for global sustainable growth by 2030.

Biofuel is typically divided into two types:

  • Bioethanol: An alcohol made from the fermentation of carbohydrates in starch or sugar crops, including sugarcane and corn.
  • Biodiesel: This is made from fats or oils via the process of transesterification. While bioethanol is popular in America and Brazil, biodiesel is more widely used in Europe.

As at 2018, global biofuel production hit 40 billion U.S. gallons, an increase of 7% on the 2017 figure. However, an annual growth of just 3% is expected between now and 2030, and it needs to hit 10% to meet IEA targets.

The idea of using biofuel is certainly not a new one. For instance, Henry Ford allegedly wanted the Model T to run on hemp biofuel while Rudolf Diesel, the man who invented the diesel engine, originally hoped it would run on peanut oil!

In fact, if you go back to the Industrial Revolution, you’ll find that biofuels powered our first internal combustion engines and lamps! Biofuels continued to be popular during the modern era up until the 1950s when cheap oil became readily available from the Middle East. The world became obsessed with oil, and global consumption increased fivefold between 1945 and 1970.

The looming fossil fuel crisis forced governments around the world to look at biofuel to save our skin once again in the early 21stcentury. In the U.S. the Renewable Fuel Standard of 2005 and the Energy Independence and Security Act two years later, forced the nation’s transportation industry to adopt biofuels on a major scale.

However, it was soon decreed that biofuels were causing more harm than good because the crops involved were not as environmentally friendly as originally believed. In 2017, it was determined that corn, and possibly milo and soybeans, were the only economically viable crops for large-scale biofuel production in the United States.

Corn ethanol was the subject of tremendous hype, and an estimated 40% of our annual corn crop is converted to fuel. This is despite the fact it is no longer seen as a viable solution to the climate change problem. What is strange is that we’re only now recognizing the potential of hemp as a biofuel!

How Hemp Can Serve as an Effective Biofuel

Hemp fiber was used widely in ancient China and made its way around the world in subsequent centuries. Did you know that around 120,000 pounds of hemp fiber was used in the rigging of the United States’ oldest navy vessel, the USS Constitution?

Back in 1853, a pair of chemists successful conducted transesterification of vegetable oil. In 1893, Diesel’s prime engine ran on its own power, and seven years later, it received the highest award at the Paris Exhibition as Diesel revealed his engine could be run on peanut oil. The 1908 Model T Ford was designed to be powered with ethanol.

Alas, industrial hemp became illegal after the passing of the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act. Supposed ‘abuse’ of the plant as a drug led to the United Nations banning its cultivation in 1961. Those who sold fossil fuels had successfully removed their biggest rival and helped hasten the gradual destruction of our climate in the process.

The European Union saw sense in the 1990s and revoked prohibition. As a result, several nations began cultivating it again. For the last few decades, hemp has been grown primarily as a source of fiber with a growing market for it in the food and cosmetics industries. The Farm Bill of 2018 finally legalized industrial hemp growth in the United States, which will hopefully result in its wide-scale use as a biofuel.

However, we are missing a trick with hemp. It is possible to create biodiesel and bioethanol from it. You create biodiesel by pressing hemp seeds to extract fats and oils. After extraction, the fats and oils are put through various steps to create a biofuel you can use in your car. Best of all, hemp biodiesel can be stored and transported like traditional diesel with a nice hemp smell.

Here are a few interesting facts about biodiesel:

  • Biodiesel is the only alternative fuel capable of running in any typical unmodified diesel engine.
  • It is ten times less toxic than salt, and its flashpoint of 300 degrees Fahrenheit makes it safer to transport than regular diesel which has a flashpoint of 125 degrees.
  • Biodiesel has been used in Europe for over two decades and has been used to cover 30 million road miles in the U.S. to date.
  • It contains no sulfur and is 11% oxygen by weight.

Traditionally, wheat-based crops such as barley and corn are used to make ethanol. However, there are different forms of fermentation which allow us to turn hemp into ethanol. Avoiding the use of food crops as a fuel source boosts food production efficiency, and hemp has the advantage of being durable enough to grow in lower-quality conditions than wheat or corn. Moreover, hemp bioethanol shares biodiesel’s transportation advantages.

Hemp Biofuel Energy Potential

Other potential biofuel sources have been cast aside due to their relatively low energy potential, high expense, or the damage they can cause to land and the environment. Hemp has major advantages over all of its rivals. It is ready to harvest in just four months.

The environmental benefits of hemp are well known. As it is such a tough plant that attracts relatively few insect pests, limited amounts of pesticide are required. Hemp also has a high resistance to fungal diseases. Another interesting trait of the hemp plant is that it can outgrow weeds.

The ability of hemp to grow in infertile soil is crucial. First of all, it ensures that fertile land can be reserved for food crops, and secondly, it doesn’t need to use a huge amount of fertilizers or water to grow. A look at the range of climatic zones hemp can grow in reveals that it can survive in practically all of the Americas, the vast majority of Europe and Southern Asia, Australia, and most of Africa outside of the Sahara region.

It has been calculated that the fuel yield of hemp is approximately 207 gallons per hectare. This is below Oil Palm and Coconut crops, but crucially, it is almost four times higher than soybeans, which are also used as a biofuel crop.

A study by Prade et al., published in the July 2011 issue of Biomass and Bioenergy, found that the adjusted biomass energy yield of hemp was over double produced by wheat straw in solid fuel terms. Hemp pellets is a prime example of solid biofuel.

Perhaps more importantly, hemp biodiesel, in particular, is a carbon-neutral replacement for diesel. During its life cycle, it ingests a far higher rate of carbon dioxide than trees. Any CO2 emissions produced during the burning of hemp biodiesel will be reabsorbed via photosynthesis. Its relatively short life cycle enables crop rotation to aid soil and benefit winter cereal crops.

Palm oil is a commonly produced type of biodiesel fuel because it is relatively cheap to produce and has a fuel yield of over 500 gallons per hectare, almost 150% more than hemp. However, it produces huge amounts of CO2 and is linked with the destruction of the rainforests and its associated wildlife.

In 2012, the Natural Climate Change journal wrote that the expansion of palm oil plantations would contribute over 550 million metric tons of CO2 by 2020. Back in 2010, a single land clearing exercise for oil palm plantations in Kalimantan emitted around 140 million metric tons of CO2; the equivalent of what 28 million vehicles emit in a year.

Hemp Biofuel: What Are We Waiting For?

Hopefully, we won’t be waiting for long. It seems as if the damage caused by certain biofuel crops has given the entire practice a bad name. Even today, there is a strong anti-renewable energy feeling in certain parts of America and the globe. The most likely reason is down to a fear that renewable energy will eat into the profits enjoyed by oil, gas, and coal companies (although the latter industry is dying a slow death).

There is a ton of misinformation about biofuel in general, as well as hemp. For instance, it is alleged that ethanol production threatens waterways as nutrients from farming seeps into our lakes. It is also falsely suggested that ethanol raises food prices, even though the corn used in it is feed corn rather than the corn we consume as food.

A lot of work must go into educating the public as to the energy benefits of hemp. Way back in 2010, a University of Connecticut study found that the hemp biodiesel produced by its graduate students had a 97% conversion efficiency.

According to Professor Richard Parnas, who led the study, someone who is already growing hemp could produce enough fuel to power their entire farm with the oil taken from the seeds they grow. He went on to point out that because the industry already exists, it won’t take much additional investment to create a burgeoning biodiesel industry.

Ultimately, hemp seeds are a viable option for biofuel production. As well as producing a high fuel yield and having a short growth cycle, hemp can grow on infertile soil and is highly resistant to pests and diseases. Biodiesel made from the plant already meets clean air regulations, and it is a much better economic and environmental option than other biofuel crops.

While it has been legal in several nations around the world for a generation, perhaps the end of industrial hemp prohibition in America will be the catalyst for a new biofuel revolution with hemp as the superstar. Our environment is in grave danger, and we’re running out of time and options; it is way past time that hemp became used as a biofuel on a global scale.