Among its myriad applications, biofuel made from industrial hemp is a viable alternative to fossil fuels. Yet the idea of energy from hemp is nothing new.
Auto maker Henry Ford is first known to have used hemp as a fuel. His well-known prototype “hemp car” was unveiled in 1941 and not only featured components made from industrial hemp, which Ford grew on his estate, but was powered by 100% hemp ethanol.
Hemp’s need for little water and fertilizer, and almost no pesticides and herbicides, makes it more eco-friendly than other crops—such as corn, various grains, oil palm, and sugar beets—that can also be used as a basis for biofuels. In addition, hemp can grow in soils that are less fertile than soils required for food production so it does not displace food crops. Since hemp returns up to 70% of its nutrients to the earth, soils are typically in better condition after hemp cultivation than when first planted. Both biodiesel and bioethanol can be produced from industrial hemp.
Biodiesel is made by refining oils and fats, most commonly vegetable oil, and is commonly blended with methanol. Hemp seed has an oil content of 30 to 35% of its seed weight and yields approximately 511 gallons of oil per acre. Traditional diesel fuel is often blended with biodiesel at a ratio of 80% / 20%. Blends can range from 2% to 100% biodiesel, and any diesel vehicle can run on biodiesel without modification. Biodiesel fuel from hemp is safe to store and biodegradable. The use of biodiesel can extend the life of engines, compared with petroleum diesel fuel, while performance is unaffected. And biodiesel smells like the plant from which it’s derived, replacing the noxious smell typically associated with petroleum-based diesel.
Research conducted at the University of Connecticut used virgin hemp seed oil to create biodiesel using a standardized process called transesterification. Tests in the university’s Biofuels Testing Laboratory revealed that hemp biodiesel had a high efficiency of conversion with 97% of the hemp oil converted to biodiesel. Test results also suggest it could be used at lower temperatures than any biodiesel currently on the market.
Bioethanol is made from the remaining parts of the hemp plant through a fermentation process. Ethanol is usually blended with gasoline; vehicles with standard gasoline engines can operate with up to 10% ethanol. Vehicles designed to run on flexible fuels can use up to an 80% ethanol mixture. In some countries where biofuel is commonly used, such as Brazil, some cars are designed to run on 100% bioethanol.
Hemp’s safe, cost-effective biofuels can contribute to an energy-independent America. It’s carbon sequestering properties help clean the air, rather than pollute it, in the fight against climate change. Hemp-sourced energy is yet another exciting application of the versatile, industrial hemp plant.