Living in the global warming era, and now entering the peak oil era, I’m surprised that there isn’t more discussion about the use of hemp as a biofuel, as well as its use as an industrial crop. It’s no secret that in 1941 Henry Ford built a car made from hemp and wheat straw that was powered by hemp biofuel. Anyone that understands the history of industrial hemp in America knows that a combination of the greed of William Randolph Hearst and the petrochemical industry ultimately squashed what was destined to be a revolutionary industry. Often associated with marijuana, hemp has been wrongfully lumped in with the cannabis family, and this is perhaps one of the biggest reasons it remains off the table as an industrial crop. The hemp plant itself is not a drug from which one can get high, it is one of the oldest plants known to mankind, can grow it in almost any climate, and has over 25,000 known uses – biofuels among them.
In the article “Why I Don’t Write about Biofuels” John J. Fanning writes:
Biofuel is not new. It has been around longer than fossil fuels. The first modern internal combustion engine was designed to run on biofuel. The first Diesel was designed to run on biofuel. And Henry Ford developed the Model T to run on biofuel. Ford also developed a methanol production plant in Iron Mountain, Michigan and contracted with Standard Oil to distribute methanol at their stations in the United States. Ford and nearly every other engine manufacturer was convinced that fossil fuel was the wrong direction for the country and the world. Ford was absolutely convinced that biofuel would be the only fuel used in automobiles.
When the Model T first went into production, biofuel was produced from cellulose-based plants. Specifically, the plant was hemp. Yes – HEMP – as in Cannabis Sativa. The hemp that Ford and everyone else used was not marijuana, but a cousin of that plant that has a low recreational value. You can’t get high from industrial hemp. Hemp has been used for production of goods for at least 6,000 years. In ancient China, it was used for paper production. Paper made from hemp is much better than paper produced from wood pulp. It is still used today for the making of currency because of its durability.
Hemp oil was also used throughout the world for lighting in lamps and as a lubricant. Sails on the ships that came and went from U.S. ports were made from hemp as was clothing and countless other products.
If we look at agricultural crops for the production of biofuel in the U.S., we find that hemp is one of the best cellulose based crops that can be cultivated here and has the potential to actually do everything we want a biofuel to do.
In the conversion of hemp to a biofuel, methanol is produced. In 1985, the consulting firm, Stone and Webster, found that methanol from wood could be produced in the U.S. and be competitive at a cost of $0.70 to $1.11 per gallon. One can only imagine how much less the cost at the pump could be with methanol produced from hemp.
Corn-based ethanol, which we produce today, has a greenhouse gas reduction factor of 0 to 3 percent. Sugarcane based biofuel has a greenhouse gas reduction factor of 50 to 70 percent. Cellulose based biofuel (hemp) has a greenhouse gas reduction factor of 90 percent.
Hemp also produces approximately 10 times more methanol per hectare grown than corn.
It needs less fertilizer and pesticides to cultivate and it produces approximately 10 tons of biomass per acre, every four months. Hemp also absorbs carbon dioxide during growth, thus increasing its environmental value.
He goes on to talk about many of the political and corporate policies and practices that have essentially blocked the growth and development of hemp as an industry.
Today, hemp production in the United States is still blockaded by the federal government. The timber industry does not want hemp cultivated. The pharmaceutical industry does not want hemp cultivated. The oil industry does not want hemp cultivated. The liquor industry does not want hemp cultivated. The agricultural industry does not want hemp cultivated and the chemical industry does not want hemp cultivated. I could go on, but you get the point.
In 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substance Act, which requires that a permit be issued by the DEA before anyone can cultivate hemp in the U.S. The DEA has made restrictions on cultivation so difficult, it is not possible for farmers to obtain these permits. As a consequence, no agricultural hemp cultivation has taken place in the U.S. since 1958. The DEA has continued to fight not only the cultivation of hemp, but for years fought to prevent importation of products manufactured from hemp. Many states have not only lifted bans on cultivation hemp, they are actively encouraging farmers to produce the crop. But farmers are understandably reluctant to grow the crop for fear that the DEA will seize their property. Lawsuits filed against DEA by farmers and supported by state politicians are presently pending in federal courts.
And different ways our country has suffered because of it:
China is the largest producer of hemp and most hemp fabrics found in the United States are imported from there. China is not the only country cultivating hemp. Many countries allow hemp cultivation. Closer to home, Canada cultivates hemp and exports its hemp produced products to the United States. Today, you can import hemp and hemp products into the United States, but you cannot cultivate it. It is a situation that one federal judge has termed “asinine”.
It’s time we get smart about this. So many of America’s (and the world’s) pending problems could be addressed with the development of industrial hemp – peak oil, climate change, coming food shortages, unemployment. As we march forward into the age of global warming, hemp is literally a miracle crop, as it is drought resistant, can be grown in almost any climate, and produce energy, food, and other useful products on a grand scale. Literally, a diverse array of new industries would pop up overnight if it were legal in this country.
‘It has a short growing season…It can be grown in any state…The long roots penetrate and break the soil to leave it in perfect condition for the next year’s crop. The dense shock of leaves, 8 to 12 feet above the ground, chokes out weeds….hemp, this new crop can add immeasurably to American agriculture and industry.’- From Popular Mechanics, Feb. 1938
We missed the boat in 1938. With the post-peak oil era upon us, it’s not too late to get back on track with hemp.