Hemp for Fuel
One of hemp’s most desirable characteristics is that it can be used for the production of fuel - something human life has been predicated on for millennia. Today, liquid fuels (like the petrol or diesel you use to fill your car) and power fuels (like the coal & natural gas used to create electricity or heat our homes) promise to be at the forefront of our concerns, and enjoy centre stage in discussions of politics and economics, well into the future. To that end, two liquid fuels can be made from hemp. The first of these being bioethanol and the other; biodiesel. In addition, hemp can also be used as fuel in a biomass power plant. Each use is discussed and explained below, with reference to the situation in the UK where possible - enjoy!
Hemp Bioethanol; Cellulosic Ethanol
Ethanol is a chemical substance used for making antiseptics (like your hand gel) and fuel, among other applications. One way of producing ethanol is through the use of plant matter - this is referred to as bioethanol. When it comes to bioethanol, there are two major types; the type you can create using the grain or fruit of a plant and the type you can create using the plant’s fibres. This last one is referred to as cellulosic ethanol. It is still a type of bioethanol as it is still derived from plant matter. The same hemp fibres that are used to make paper can be converted into this cellulosic ethanol (follow the link for details).
Recent political and environmental movements are responsible for growing interest in bioethanol and therefore the opportunity for hemp to be grown as a source of this fuel is growing with it. Below we’ll look into these environmental and political factors in a bit more detail, but first let’s start at the beginning...
What’s the Situation With Bioethanol Now?
Globally, ethanol production for transport fuel increased from 17 billion litres in the year 2000 to 84.6 billion in 2011. The USA and Brazil, the world’s largest producers, accounted for 62% and 25% of global production respectively. The majority of ethanol fuel comes from corn hence the USA, with whole states devoted to the production of corn, produced 50 billion litres of it in 2010 - up 800% from 6.2 billion litres in the year 2000. Ethanol is also often made from sugar-cane and wheat among many other plants. In short, the global production of bioethanol has been growing by 19.4% per year (on average) for the last 11 years.
Can Cars Really Drive On Plants?
In terms of its potential as a fuel, bioethanol has a petrol/gasoline equivalent of 1:1.5, meaning 1.5 units of ethanol are needed to meet the energy output of 1 unit of traditional petrol. This may make it seem like a poor alternative but, as it can be grown domestically, ethanol begins to look a little more favourable... This is because the vast majority of the world’s traditional fuels (fossil fuels) are concentrated in a relatively small number of countries - a fact that has often led to price spikes, political trade-offs and even war.
As access to fuel is central to a thriving economy, being able to grow/produce your own fuel, rather than import it from another country, has always been a boon to countries able to do it. A country that produces more fuel than it uses enjoys; economic security (fuel prices can be controlled and regulated); a stronger negotiating position on the world stage, thus strengthening the economy further through beneficial trade deals, and is able to stand firm in it's moral position regarding environmental policy and world human rights governance. Being a net exporter (where you sell more of a product than you buy in) of fuel can therefore have enormous economic and moral consequences for a country. This raises two simple questions...
How Secure Is Our Access To Fuel? And Is The UK A Net Exporter Of Fuel?
Here in the UK, we’re a net importer (our imports minus our exports) of petroleum products. We imported (net) 10 million tonnes in 2016 - the highest such figure since the 1984 miner’s strike. Most of these imports come from Norway and 28% come from OPEC countries including Nigeria (9% of total imports), Algeria (7%) and Russia (5%). If relationships worsened with any of our major suppliers, prices could rise quickly. As a leading source of fuel, access to crude oil has long been known to determine economic strength, due to its ability to facilitate trade. Producing more of our fuel at home gives us more control over prices and more economic stability. It makes sense, therefore, to diversify our energy supply and invest more in domestic sources of fuel such as bioethanol.
Domestically Produced Bioethanol Sounds Great, But Where’s The Opportunity For Hemp?
If the environmental, economic and political drivers continue pushing, the demand for ethanol (and the chemically identical bioethanol) will continue to increase. Considering that climate change is being felt the world over, wars are being waged over access to fuel (think the Iraq war or Russia's annexation of Crimea) and our demand for energy in all forms is continuing to grow, these drivers don’t look likely to change. How can hemp muscle in on this market? Well, the problem with grain-derived bioethanol (the type produced from corn, sugar and fruits) is that there is potential for it to compete with the food industry, possibly driving the price of grains higher and the prices of our favourite foods and staples higher with it. The reason for this is that you can't eat the corn and produce fuel with it; you have to do one or the other. In other words, you can't have your cake and eat it!
Cellulosic ethanol (the type produced from hemp), on the other hand, avoids this potential pothole; it can be grown and harvested at the same time as its food crop (the seeds), rather than instead of them. In the industry, this is known as dual cropping; where you get two raw material products from one crop. When the hemp plant is harvested, the leaves and fibres can be used to create ethanol, while the seeds can be processed into protein-rich seed kernels (learn more about hemp foods here) and extremely nutritious Omega-rich food oil (check these guys out if you don't believe us: ). Even the hard, woody stem can be sold for use in construction (learn more about hemp construction compounds here). What this all means is that because hemp plants hold a lot of value, the costs of production are offset somewhat by the multiple high-value products that can be made from it.
The extent to which this is true and whether or not bioethanol from hemp can compete, in terms of price, not only with other sources of bioethanol but with traditional fossil fuels too remains to be seen, as no-one seems to be willing to give it a go. Until now, that is. There are many factors that will affect this price viability. Too many, in fact, to list them within the scope of this article.
Consider this example. The food crop derived from hemp is different to the food crop derived from corn and therefore suggesting hemp can be grown for fuel without competing with our major food sources is wrong; using land to grow hemp would still make it compete with our favourite food crops such as wheat, corn etc. Hemp grown for fuel would therefore suffer from some of the same failings as corn-derived bioethanol, where using corn for bioethanol production competes with its use as a food source. What we have to ask is whether this should be the case. Should we be protecting the production of carb-rich food crops at all costs when we could be producing fat and protein-rich food crops (hemp seed oils & kernels) that also contribute to our domestic fuel production? Evidence that fat-rich diets (as long as they are the right fats, like the polyunsaturated fats found in hemp oil) are actually better for us than carb-rich diets, which evoke high blood sugar levels and associated diseases, is mounting in support of hemp. What this food example shows is that if hemp is to be a financially viable source of fuel, we need to break the shackles of traditional thinking in many parts of our economic and social policy making.
In addition, hemp, unlike corn and particularly sugarcane, can be grown in a wide range of geographic locations and climatic conditions, reducing its likelihood to compete with traditional food crops further still. On top of that, the growing properties of hemp make it an even more desirable crop from an environmental & business perspective; hemp requires no pesticides or fertilisers to grow well and often remediates the soil it grows in. The same cannot be said for corn, wheat or sugar-cane. Learn more about the almost miraculous growing properties of hemp here.
Further information and research on the viability of hemp as a replacement for petroleum products is underway - keep up to date and sign up to our newsletter here. As a reference for the conversion efficiency of hemp to bioethanol, a University of Illinois-Urbana study (1975) found that 1 acre of hemp can provide 300 Gallons (1,363 Litres) of cellulosic ethanol. Comparisons with other bioethanol fuel sources are needed.
Why Isn’t Cellulosic Ethanol Already Big?
The industry for cellulosic ethanol is nowhere near the size of its older sibling. This is due, in part, to the high level of capital investment (the amount money invested at the beginning of a business venture) required to build a hemp processing plant for fuel, compared to their corn-processing counterparts. Why do the two processing plants differ in price? Firstly, the process for producing ethanol from corn and other traditional sources is simpler. In addition, processing hemp requires some fairly heavy, unsustainable catalysts due to the lignin found in cellulosic hemp fibres.
Secondly, the technology for processing corn into bioethanol has been around for many years. Developing new technology is expensive and often requires decades of tweaking and mass-producing to bring the price of the parts down. This happened for traditional bioethanol plants years ago, but hasn’t yet happened for bioethanol plants processing hemp. Hemp, therefore is currently very expensive to work with if you want to make cellulosic ethanol. This is offset only slightly by the relative cheapness of hemp compared to corn.
There have, however, been some interesting developments in this area - though not many in UK. In British Columbia (Western Canada), there are companies producing cellulosic ethanol by taking in the whole hemp plant (most just take in the hurd) and producing pure lignin as a byproduct. The lignin is then sold for use in fine clothing, paper and spray insulation. This approach dramatically improves the financial viability of using hemp to produce bioethanol.
What About Bioethanol In The UK?
Under the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligations order, bioethanol must be blended into petrol and diesel in the UK today at a rate of 4.75%. A rise towards the 10% EU-wide target by 2020 is expected but was stalled momentarily by a report that showed some poorly chosen bioethanol sources actually produced more CO2 in their lifespan than petrol. Wheat was identified as one crop that can generate a lot of CO2, although this hasn’t been proven to necessarily be the case in the UK, yet.
Currently, we rely fairly heavily on wheat as a source for our bioethanol, in fact the biggest buyer of wheat in the UK is the Saltend biofuel plant on the Humber estuary in the North of England. This takes in 1.1 million tonnes of wheat and produces 420 million litres of bioethanol per year. The environment secretary pre-2008, Ian Pearson, said that hemp was not competitive compared to other sources when questioned by MPs. Meanwhile, Biodiesel Magazine reported in 2007 that hemp was too expensive due to its small-scale production. This last statement in particular shows that if production of hemp were to increase, the price of hemp raw materials would undoubtedly fall, and the plant would be taken seriously as a resource for bioethanol. In addition, as the demand for other hemp products (food, oil & construction materials) increases, they can begin to subsidise the parts of the plant used for bioethanol, therefore lowering its price and improving it's viability as a fuel.
Hemp oil is made by pressing the seed of the hemp plant; just as hemp seed oil is used to produce highly nutritious food oils and medicinal products, the oil can also be produced for use as fuel. Food-grade hemp oil needs to be converted to biodiesel, a process currently being done by a Colorado company called ClearEcos, among others.
Where’s the opportunity?
Biodiesel releases 78% less carbon than regular petrol. Again, similar to the drivers behind the growth of bioethanol production, environmental and political movements are increasing the attractiveness of, and demand for, biodiesel as a fuel. Hemp could, therefore, be produced for this demand. In addition, current diesel engines can take up to 20% biodiesel, compared to the 10% limit for bioethanol in current petrol engines.
What’s stopping it?
Lignan and other nutritive components in hemp seed oil make it difficult to process it to the viscosity (‘thickness’ of the liquid) required for biodiesel. In addition, hemp seed oil contains a stunning array of nutritional substances that are great for humans, meaning there is likely to be some competition for the oil from the food industry, thus raising the price of the oil and making it too expensive for consumers to want to use as fuel. Knowledge of the nutritive benefits of hemp oil are, however, little known at the moment. Much more work needs to be done on the financial viability of using hemp as a biodiesel and therefore it's potential to contribute to a cleaner energy mix in this way.
Hemp Biomass; Heat and Power Plants
So far, we’ve been talking about fuel as the liquid fuel that we use in our cars, aeroplanes and other transport engines. We’ve found that you can make two types of liquid fuel using hemp; bioethanol for use with petrol engines and biodiesel, for use with diesel engines. However these liquid fuels only make up one part of our overall fuel consumption. We use other fuels, like coal and gas, in enormous quantities to fire our power stations and produce electricity for use at home. Similarly, we burn gas at home to heat our houses and cook our food. This is, by far, where the greatest opportunity stands for hemp to be used as a source of fuel. But how? When it comes to power-generation, you have the methods that burn fossil fuels (coal & gas power stations) and you have the renewable ones, like wind farms, hydro, solar and importantly; biomass power plants.
Biomass power plants work through a process of fermentation; vegetation ferments producing methane, which is then syphoned off and burned. This creates heat that can then be used to produce electricity. The systems, depending on their complexity, can take all kinds of agricultural wastes and fermenting crops.
This is nothing new. Unlike cellulosic ethanol, biomass plants and the technology they use are well known and have been around for some time; making them much, much cheaper. In fact, the Victorians even used biomass in a similar way; they rigged some street lamps in London to the sewage pipes below, allowing methane to rise from the sewers and be burned at the top of the lamp to produce light...
Things have progressed a long way since then! In Germany, for example, more than 8,000 biomass plants are in operation - these are power plants built specifically to take plant matter in at one end and produce heat and electricity out of the other. Herlt is one German company, among many others, that is producing machinery for biomass fermenters.
Localising these power plants presents even more benefits. Transmission inefficiencies are a huge problem in our National Grid - the system we use to move energy from where it’s created to where it’s needed. When you send electricity along a wire, you lose a lot of it. Therefore the model of producing electricity in one place and sending it somewhere else to be used is very inefficient. Think of all the off-shore wind farms, despite being great for reducing our CO2 output, and how the electricity has to be transported to where it is needed far inland. Biomass fermenters could almost completely eliminate these inefficiencies as they can be built close to the villages, towns and cities that need them.
The best example of where this has already been done is Feldheim, in Germany, where they’ve built a 500 kwh biomass plant that is locally owned (in part) and has actually reduced unemployment in the area too. The system cost €1,750,000 in total and provides heat for 35 homes - each paying a one-off hook-up fee of €1,500. Their heating costs have been averaging 10% to 20% lower when compared to fossil fuel-based alternatives... Not bad!
Conclusions And What To Take Away
As we have shown, hemp has a strong theoretical basis for strengthening our economy through energy security. Bioethanol, biodiesel and biomass power plants certainly have their benefits but it is Biomass power plants followed by bioethanol liquid fuel that hold the most promise. However not being assessed thoroughly, nor being explored on a large enough scale, has led policy to overlook the contribution hemp can make to our economy. While more work needs to be done to assess the financial viability of hemp as a source of fuel, particularly in comparison with other biofuel sources, we can already see that the lens through which we assess hemp may need to be adjusted to for true comparisons of value to be made. The example of hemp food oil was used to illustrate this point; we must take a holistic view and assess all the contributions hemp can make, as opposed to comparing it like for like with fuel sources of the past. Changing this lens is unlikely to do the comparison process any harm and may even reveal further oppotrunities for a healthier, moral, more productive, more efficient and more independent society (and economy).
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