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Industrial Uses Of Hemp

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A Short History of Cannabis Hemp

Since ancient times, until this century, hemp was used throughout the world to provide food, fiber, paper, medicine, shelter and fuel. In the early 1900’s Henry Ford used fuel made from hemp to run the first cars, and believing that hemp would play an even larger role in the automobile industry, he built a car body made from hemp fiber that was stronger than steel, yet only a fraction of the weight (see  Ford’s engineers found ways to extract methanol, charcoal, tar, pitch, ethyl acetate and creosote – all from hemp and all of which are fundamental ingredients used throughout industry. But since the prohibition of hemp in the 1930’s, these ingredients have been provided synthetically by the petro-chemical industry, its growth having been “fueled” by big money invested in fossil fuels. Though it had little to do with recreational use in the 1930’s, hemp was demonized by those who benefitted from its prohibition.  It can now be said that the ban on hemp was historically the result of an industrial war – natural vs. synthetic. It was the people from Standard Oil, Gulf Oil and DuPont Chemicals who had the most to do with hemp prohibition, and the most to gain from it.OldCar

 Hemp and Marijuana – Different Strains

Hemp, as marijuana, was not widely known until the 1960’s when Viet Nam veterans returned from Southeast Asia with pockets full of seeds of a different strain of hemp. Industrial hemp and marijuana are very different breeds of Cannabis. (Industrial hemp that is used for fiber, medicine, food, and fuel will not get you high).  Also in the 1960’s, Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, challenged the notion that humans could obtain mastery over nature by using synthetic chemicals. A half century later, her warnings have all come true. Global warming, and increased health risks linked to pollution of our air, water, soil and food, are all associated with the mining and burning of fossil fuels as well as the processing and manufacture, use and disposal, of the synthetic chemicals we use today.


Producing Fuel

Scientists and researchers are looking once again to nature for solutions and industrial hemp appears to hold the greatest promise in the area of agriculturally produced sustainable fuels and chemicals.

 There are several methods of producing fuel from biomass. The most widely used method converts plant sugars into ethanol, most commonly from starches in corn, sugar cane, or sweet sorghum. But growing these crops for fuel have major drawbacks. For example, nitrous oxide emissions are produced from growing corn.  Also corn, cane, and sorghum take up space on land suitable for food crops and they require expensive and toxic herbicides and pesticides. Hemp is easily grown on marginal land not suited for growing food. There is greater soil conservation and nearly non-existent needs for herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers in farming hemp.

Other methods for producing sustainable agri-fuel is the trans-esterification method that converts seed oil into biodiesel fuel and the cellulosic method that converts cellulose from non-food sources such as trees or grasses. Hemp is suitable for both of these processes. It is one of the most cellulose dense plants on earth, containing 77-80% cellulose, while trees are only 40-50% cellulose, and switch grass is a mere 37% cellulose. Hemp yields 4 times as much fiber per acre as the average forest and is one of the lowest costs to highest yield crops. But the best part of hemp may be that it is like a CO2 sponge, readily absorbing much more CO2 in its short growth cycle than many larger plants.

In Canada where industrial hemp is legal to grow, farmer Paul Bobbee discovered the many benefits of producing biodiesel fuel from hemp when he had a surplus of hemp seeds. Instead of tossing them, he turned them into fuel and found that diesel made from hemp had better cloud point and cetane values than biodiesel made from other oils.

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Dr. Richard Parnas, Professor of Chemical, Materials and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Connecticut, uses virgin hemp seed oil obtained from Canada to create biodiesel using the trans-esterification process. His hemp biodiesel shows a high efficiency of conversion whereby 97 percent of the hemp oil is converted to biodiesel. It passed all laboratory tests, even showing properties that suggest it could be used at lower temperatures than any biodiesel currently on the market. Parnas points out that if farmers could grow hemp they might be able to produce enough fuel to power their whole farm with the oil from their seeds. The University of Connecticut holds a patent on a biodiesel reactor system that could be easily customized to make biodiesel from hemp trans-esterification process.

Alternatively the cellulose method could be the key to making biofuels clean to the point of becoming carbon neutral. Currently there are several major universities researching cellulosic biofuels and methods are being developed to convert cellulose into a fuel at very low cost. George Huber of the University of Massachusetts and Bruce Dale of Michigan State University believe that cellulosic fuels are key to solving the political, environmental and economic problems associated with fossil fuels. 


A joint venture between Syngar of Canada, ANW of South Africa and Discovery Minerals of California is working toward developing projects that will utilize a proprietary technology to reduce costs and speed the pre-treatment of hemp cellulose to form a kind of slurry suitable for fermentation and use in the conversion of hemp to cellulosic ethanol.

Growing Hemp

Industrial hemp brings into the Canadian economy over a billion dollars a year and demands are growing. The US alone spends over $500 million each year buying hemp from other countries for textiles, seed oil, rope, soap and body care products, paper, high protein foods and many other things and the list is growing. Everything that humanity currently makes from oil could be made from hemp bio-oil including biodegradable plastic.

Twenty-three countries successfully cultivate and process industrial hemp without affecting enforcement of marijuana laws. In fact, industrial hemp has no value as a recreational drug but because many policymakers believe that by legalizing hemp they are legalizing marijuana, it remains illegal to grow in Belize. The Belize government should lift the ban on growing industrial hemp through understanding its history and the tremendous opportunity for developing biodegradable products and encourage farmers and workers toward a cleaner world.


Summary of Advantages of Industrial Hemp

  1. Carbon dioxide is released into the air when burning hemp fuel, but is absorbed by the next crop, which can be harvested 120 days after planting.
  2. Hemp is a very leafy plant and thus contributes a high level of oxygen to the atmosphere during its growth making up for the loss of oxygen when it is burnt as a fuel, which in turn, reduces unwanted effects of global warming, acid rain and the depletion in the ozone layer.
  3. Hemp is naturally resistant to pests and does not need pesticides or herbicides.
  4. Very little fertilizers are required since its abundant leaves enrich the soil and release the required nutrients and minerals.
  5. Because industrial hemp grows densely, sunlight cannot penetrate the plants, and this means the crop is normally free of weeds.
  6. Hemp has deep roots providing nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil that reach ground water so erosion of topsoil is limited, thereby reducing water use and pollution.
  7. The same soil can be used to grow hemp for many years, without losing its high quality. Or, it can be used as a rotation crop enriching the soil for other crops.
  8. Hemp produces more biomass than any other plant. If grown in Belize for fuel, it is estimated that it could support 100% of all energy needs in the country.
  9. Hemp can be used to produce both biodiesel and bioethanol fuel.
  10. Hemp can yield 10 tons per acre in 4 months.
  11. Hemp biomass can be converted into fuels (methane, methanol, gasoline) more efficiently than fossil fuels (coal, oil) and without the sulfur or acid rain.
  12. The increased use of biodiesel fuels would reduce dependence on foreign sources while increasing national agricultural jobs and revenues.

The US alone spends over $500M USD each year buying hemp from other countries for textiles, seed oil, rope, soap and body care products, paper, high protein foods among others and the list is growing. In July 2014 the estimated value of hemp per acre was $21,000 USD from seeds and $12,500USD from stalks.

In the next issues, we will explore the many other uses of industrial hemp such as food, fiber, paper, medicine, and shelter.


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