What Is Hemp Biofuel, And Is It A Realistic Option?
Henry Ford has already figured out how to mass produce the first car that your average middle class American can actually afford… but he’s not satisfied.
You see, Ford is a man who has risen to fame and fortune on the back of the relentless pursuit of perfection. He knows that the cars that are rolling off of his assembly lines need to improve. He also knows that he can produce a stronger, lighter car that doesn’t depend on the unsustainable use of fossil fuels.
In a statement promoting sustainable fuel sources as a far better option, he’d be quoted saying that “..there’s enough alcohol in one year’s yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for one hundred years.”
After years of research Henry Ford unveils his design for a car with panels made out of an incredibly strong cellulose-based biodegradable plastic.
It is 450kg lighter than the current model.
It is 10 times stronger than the steel models of the time.
It runs on hemp biofuel.
It is the Model T.
This gives some rich and powerful people a bit of a fright. You see, they’re heavily invested in the future of fossil fuels. They pull a few strings. They scratch a few backs. You know how it all works..
Gasoline prices suddenly drop. Taxes on alcohol (such as biofuel) rise. It suddenly makes a lot more financial sense to stick with the use of fossil fuels, and a lot less financial sense to change to a biofuel.
A vehicle that may have completely changed the future of our planet for the better would never reach the production line.
But would Ford’s car have actually worked? Could it actually be possible to run a car on hemp? Absolutely.
In fact, different parts of the plant can be used to create different kinds of fuels for different kinds of engines.
Hemp Ethanol for Car Fuel (Petrol Engines)
Ethanol biofuel created from crops, plant matter, and even compost is a viable fuel option for vehicles with petrol engines.
Corn is a really common crop used for this purpose. The process of producing ethanol from hemp is kind of similar. The stalk of the hemp plant is thrown into a big vat and is treated with heat and chemicals to release sugars from its fibres. These sugars are then fermented which produces a type of ethanol called cellulosic ethanol. Too easy, right?
While the process is pretty straight forward, a number of ‘issues’ hold hemp back from becoming a powerhouse in the biofuel arena.
…More on that later on.
Meanwhile, there’s another part of the hemp plant that can crank out it’s own fair share of vehicle propelling biofuel…
Hemp Biodiesel for Car Fuel (Diesel Engines)
This is where our little friend the hemp seed comes into play.
When simply put, the seeds of the hemp plant are pressed to extract their oil. This oil is then put through a long list of rather complicated sounding steps which, for those with an hour or two up their sleeves, can find them here. Rest assured, the final product can be considered biodiesel.
This hemp biodiesel was the fuel that Henry Ford had planned to have run the car that never reached the production line. It is also what powered a 1983 Mercedes-Benz 300TD station wagon fitted out and toured around America by a group called Hemp Car Transamerica in 2001.
Running on 100% hemp oil, the car travels at 27 miles per gallon (11.4 kilometres per litre), which is exactly the same mileage as is achieved with standard diesel fuel.
Is hemp a realistic alternative to fossil fuels?
Using hemp to fuel both petrol and diesel engines is entirely possible, even exciting. But it faces some powerful competition, the same competition it has faced 78 years ago in 1941 – fossil fuel.
At first glance things don’t look good for hemp.
1 unit of traditional fossil fuel based petrol generates the energy output of 1.5 units of bio-ethanols such as those created from hemp.
Seems pretty cut and dry right? It doesn’t look great for hemp until you think about what actually goes into the production of both fuel types.
Fossil fuel took thousands and thousands of years to do its fossilisation thing underneath the earth. Then it needed to be expensively sucked out of the earth in one of a small number of countries who happen to occupy the oil and charge through the nose for it. They even go to war to protect / defend / acquire / manipulate it.
On the other hand, hemp takes only a few months and a seed to grow. It grows like a weed in most conditions. And furthermore, it’s not known to have created any geopolitical unrest or conflicts.
But let’s put all of that logic aside for a moment. (the massive companies and fat cats who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, like to do this all the time!)
The other obstacle hemp faces is competition from it’s other biological friends.
Popular opinion suggests that crops like corn yield more ethanol per square kilometre than other biofuel options – such as hemp.
But do they really?
Research into hemp as a potential bio-ethanol preference crop actually suggests that hemp is “..competitive with the most acclaimed lignocellulosic crops (ie corn), that, although achieving higher biomass yields, have lower cellulose content.”
Add to this a few facts..
- Hemp needs little or no fertilizer to do its thing.
- Hemp can grow like a weed (in a good way!) in poor soil.
- Hemp grows so densely that other weeds are not able to squeeze in to compete for nutrients.
- Hemp does not need land to be aggressively cleared before it can be farmed.
- Hemp exhaust is far less harmful to the environment.
Henry Ford was a clever guy. A really, really clever guy.
How might things have been different if his original hemp fuelled car did make its way into driveways all over the world 80 years ago?
Let’s hope we don’t need to wait another 80 years until his vision is realised.