Fossil fuels are a finite resource, but what is even more pressing than running out is the damage that they are causing to both the planet and the environment. Coal and petroleum have helped to advance much of humanity, but the ensuing problems such as pollution, climate change, and resource wars, may also very well lead to its demise. Liquid and solid fuels will still be necessary in the future for long-distance transport until we can find a better solution, but in the meantime, we need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels. One option is to turn to renewable fuels made from plants, known as biofuels, which can be derived from soybean, palm, and industrial hemp. Of the three, industrial hemp might be the best option.
For centuries hemp seed oil has been used to fuel lamps, and for good reason: the plants grow quickly on little water and produce seeds that contain about 30% oil. This same oil can be transformed into biodiesel. Hemp can produce a greater yield of oil compared to crops like soybean, sunflower, or peanuts. Hemp biodiesel outperforms conventional diesel in every area save for oxidation stability, but this can be resolved by adding antioxidants. The reason that hemp biodiesel has not caught on for mainstream use is that the prices for hempseed oil are still high. Hemp cultivation is still banned in many places, and these regulatory barriers prevent hemp from being a more widely-grown crop. Perhaps as more people realize the potential of industrial hemp, more hemp can be grown and decrease the cost of hemp oil.
Whereas biodiesel is derived from oil, methanol and ethanol can be derived from the whole hemp plant. Both ethanol and methanol are alcohols that can be used as fuel in vehicles. Ethanol comes from the sugar and starches of the plant, while methanol comes from the woody pulp matter. Hemp-based ethanol isn’t a new idea: supposedly Henry Ford grew hemp to produce ethanol to fuel his cars. The by-product of the dry distillation process yields charcoal, which can be used as a solid fuel.
As far as solid fuels go, the hurd, or woody core of the plant, makes for a good alternative to wood. Using the hurds instead of wood pellets produces the same heat and roughly the same amount of ash but isn’t corrosive.
All of these approaches to using hemp as a biofuel hold great potential, but until governments can embrace it and update their regulations, we won’t see cheap industrial hemp biofuels widely available. In an ideal world, hemp would as ubiquitous a crop as soybeans.