Though hemp fuel may seem like a futuristic idea, it’s actually an old concept that dates back to the birth of the automotive revolution. In fact, Henry Ford designed some of his first Model T cars to run on hemp biofuel as well as gasoline. Oh, what could have been if discoveries of large crude oil deposits in the early 20th century and fierce lobbying from the petroleum industry hadn’t crowned oil as king of the road.
Fortunately, interest in hemp fuel and other environmental benefits of industrial hemp has been growing, especially after the 2018 US Farm Bill allowed for the widespread production of industrial hemp in the United States. What is hemp fuel, exactly? How does it compare to more traditional energy sources, like oil? Most importantly, is a world running on hemp biofuel a pie-in-the-sky dream or a possible future reality?
What Is Hemp Fuel?
It should be no surprise that the incredibly versatile hemp plant can also be converted into the energy our power-hungry world needs.
In essence, hemp biofuel can be divided into two distinct categories:
- Hemp biodiesel
- Hemp ethanol
You’re probably aware that some types of vehicles run on a substance called diesel instead of gasoline or electricity. You’ve even likely noticed that many gas station pumps include diesel options. Diesel is less refined than gasoline and is typically used for larger motors, like semi-trucks, buses, ocean-bound ships, construction equipment, trains, and more. However, you can also find sedans and consumer trucks that also run on diesel. (Though most diesel consumer vehicles are sold in Europe.)
Biodiesel is an alternative fuel made with a mixture of vegetable oils and diesel fuel. It is both renewable and biodegradable. Although most biodiesels are made from soybean oil, many different substances can be turned into biodiesel, including animal fat, restaurant cooking oil, algae, and – you guessed it – hemp.
Hemp diesel is made from pressing hemp seeds to extract oil, which can then be mixed with traditional diesel and put directly into any compatible diesel engine. One extra fun side effect of using hemp biodiesel is that instead of a vehicle emitting a chemical, sooty smell, a car running on hemp diesel will smell like hemp.
Ethanol is a type of clear alcohol that can be used as biofuel. Like biodiesel, ethanol can be made from a variety of substances, including grains, sugars, and starches. In 2005, the Renewable Fuel Standard set minimum renewable fuel requirements that would gradually rise over time. As a result, by 2020 most gasoline sold in the United States contains around 10% ethanol by volume according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Most of today’s commercial ethanol is made from corn, sorghum, barley, sugar cane, or sugar beets. However, hemp can also be turned into ethanol. The process of making fuel from hemp involves shredding the hemp stalk and then heating it with chemicals to release the cellulose from the plant matter. The cellulose is then broken down into sugar using special enzymes. This sugar is fermented into ethanol which must then be purified and distilled to become a usable biofuel.
The Benefit of Using Hemp Fuel for Cars
If you’ve been paying attention to the news over the last few decades, then you probably know that fossil fuels aren’t doing our planet any favors. Research conducted by the EPA found that every gallon of gasoline burned puts 8,887 grams of CO2 into the air. When you consider that the average driver puts 11,500 miles on their car per year, that results in the typical vehicle emitting 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year.
Hemp is a renewable and sustainable resource, unlike both coal and petroleum. Additionally, since hemp ethanol is made from the plant’s stalk, it doesn’t compete with the food stock. Consider that 40% of corn grown in the US is used for ethanol instead of feeding people and livestock.
Hemp also grows fast (reaching maturity around four months), doesn’t require as many pesticides as many other crops, and is renowned for absorbing CO2 as it grows. Finally, hemp can grow in many different climates and can thrive in soils where other biofuel plants can’t get a toehold. This means countries all over the world can grow hemp and take more control over their fuel inventory.
For these reasons is it time to start looking at hemp fuel as the future of energy, or is this idea too good to be true? Some notable hemp fuel drawbacks are worth discussing.
Drawbacks of Hemp Biofuel
When we look at hemp fuel vs. gasoline or other fossil fuels, it seems obvious that hemp is the better choice, so why aren’t we pumping hemp biodiesel or hemp ethanol into our cars or heating our homes with it? For one thing, turning hemp oil into ethanol is a longer and more labor-intensive process (read: more expensive) than sugarcane or corn, so it isn’t price-competitive yet.
Secondly, it would take a lot of hemp to meet our energy needs. Biodiesel, including hemp diesel, produces less energy than petroleum-derived diesel, meaning we would need to dedicate a large amount of land to growing hemp if we wanted hemp fuel to make a sizable dent in our current energy appetite.
The Future of Hemp Fuel
At the end of the day, hemp fuel looks like a promising new technology, but that promise is still in its infancy. Researchers and scientists will need to find a more cost-efficient way to turn hemp into biodiesel and to figure out how to increase hemp oil yields to make hemp ethanol feasible on a large scale.
Still, let’s not count out hemp. In the coming days, we’ll need to utilize many different solutions to address climate change and protect our precious planet. Hemp may have a big role to play in that fight even beyond fueling our cars and homes. In the meantime, we’ll keep refining our own processes to bring our customers reliable and productive hemp strains for CBD and CBG.