In a recent blog, Could This Hempmobile Save the Planet?, we introduced you to Bruce Michael Dietzen, the mastermind behind Renew Sports Cars of Key West, Florida, whose various models of the “Canna” are made from hemp. His company’s mission is for all cars to be carbon negative by 2025.

Dietzen’s inspiration was Henry Ford’s innovative use of hemp in his Model T, unveiled in 1941. Demonstrating its versatility then, as both a fuel and an element in bio-composite body panels, hemp is again topping the solution list as eco-conscious auto manufacturers drive the industry to greater sustainability. Canna cars are individually custom built. But can a hemp-based vehicle be a reality for the masses? Can this technology be applied to factory built vehicles? Yes – Lotus Cars shows us how!

The most comprehensive example of what’s possible in the quest for green personal driving for the masses is the Lotus Eco Elise, introduced in 2008 as a variation of the progressive, British company’s Elise S. A holistic approach in its development went beyond addressing emissions and fuel efficiency to examining the environmental impact of the vehicle’s life cycle and components. The objective was, according to Lee Preston of Lotus Engineering, to reduce the carbon footprint of the car.

Hemp proved to contribute substantially to the production of the Eco Elise. The primary constituent in its body panels and spoiler, hemp technical fabrics provide comparable or greater strength, with less weight, than alternatives such as metal or fiberglass. Bio-composites are typically flexible as well and are capable of sustaining an impact then springing back to shape rather than crushing like steel or splintering like fiberglass. Hemp fibers blended with a polyester resin form a hybrid composite for manufacture of the lightweight seats. A brown accent stripe of hemp-reinforced composite, with visible hemp fibers, sweeps from the front bumper, over the hood and roof and down across the rear spoiler – a dynamic, visual statement that this car is unique.

Banned in England until 1993 because of its erroneous association with marijuana’s psychoactive properties, hemp is now commonly farmed. The hemp used by Lotus is farmed locally in East Anglia near Lotus headquarters in Hethel, Norfolk where Eco Elise components are manufactured, with another manufacturing facility in Norwich, just a short distance away. This low requirement of carbon miles for production of the Eco Elise contributes substantially to Lotus’ carbon neutral objective.

Local farmers plant hemp in late April or early May, fertilize using only about half the amount required for wheat, then apply no other chemicals before harvest. Hemp absorbs and sequesters carbon dioxide (CO2) so bio-components of the Eco Elise actually retain, rather than emit CO2. Consider that – vehicles that fight climate change!

Eco-engineering combined with other carefully chosen materials such as eco-wool, sisal and water-based paint, join hemp in moving towards the reality of a sustainable personal vehicle. Thanks to lighter weight components the Eco Elise is 70 pounds leaner than the original Elise S platform. Already known for its fuel efficient vehicles, Lotus has added dashboard instrumentation that cues drivers for more efficient shifting which, along with its drop in weight, means less fuel consumption and lower emissions. Two small solar panels on the roof are capable of powering the car’s electrical subsystems and can decrease the load on the alternator, further reducing emissions.

Car manufacturers, such as Lotus and Renew Sports Cars, are making revolutionary carbon negative… Click To Tweet

In keeping with Lotus’ commitment to sustainability, an overhaul of manufacturing processes and operations at its Hethel headquarters resulted in reductions of 14% in electricity, 30% natural gas and 11% water. In addition, 60% of waste materials are recycled and packaging is reused multiple times.

Although most of us can’t likely opt for the Eco Elise, Lotus demonstrates what is possible in a factory setting. Its technologies and components can be applied on a larger scale. Along with innovations in production, research is ongoing to refine existing composite and hybrid materials so that they are biodegradable. Imagine – no more auto scrapyards!

Since the debut of the Lotus Eco Elise other auto manufacturers, including Renew Sports Cars, are incorporating hemp into their vehicles. In 2010 Canadian-based Motive introduced its three-door electric hatchback, the Kestrel, which is made of hemp composite. Thanks to their progressive visions, innovative technologies and commitments to sustainability it is clear that a personal vehicle that does no harm to our environment can be a very real option for every driver. Hemp can be a solution on many levels – for exterior components, interior applications that replace fossil-fuel-based plastics, seating and upholstery, and even fuel. Thanks, Henry Ford, for starting it all!

See the Lotus Eco Elise in action and imagine the possibilities! Contact your government representatives to encourage the use of these materials in cars and other products, and sign the petition to legalize hemp farming across the U.S.