Hemp for the Future

on Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Recently I was listening to Science Friday on Minnesota Public Radio and heard a show titled "Fuels for the Future." It concentrated on ways to get ethanol from various sources such as corn, switch grass and even algae. Ethanol-based fuels are one possible way to lessen our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels, and should be researched and developed by those of us in the US and throughout the world.

Corn is, in my opinion, just about the worst source for ethanol, even if it is the most researched. In 2007 the US farmed 92.9 million acres of corn, which is the highest it has been since the height of WWII in 1944 when we farmed 95.5 million acres. The best way to grow corn these days is with tons of nitrogen-based fertilizers, what is not used by the plant is washed away by rainfall and irrigation. A majority of that fertilizer makes it way to the Gulf of Mexico and is a direct cause of a 6-7,000 mile square zone that has formed where nothing grows, a "dead zone" roughly the size of New Jersey.

Switchgrass is another alternative mentioned as a source of ethanol, and should be given more attention than corn-based ethanol. Switchgrass requires little or no fertilization and produces ethanol which burns cleaner than corn. I believe that corn is given more attention than switchgrass because of the saturation of corn in the American diet and the fact that major agricultural and chemical companies have invested millions of dollars into research and development of corn that will produce the largest yields. These are the same companies that have very strong financial connections to members of government. Corn seems to be the quickest and easiest road to energy independence, but I believe the environmental cost is far too high.

One logical alternative is continuously overlooked: industrial hemp.

Hemp can produce 10 tons of cellulose per acre every four months. Switchgrass produces 6-8 tons and corn a mere 4 tons, and corn only produces one crop per year. (Source) Refining the hemp biomass brings forth butane, methanol and fuel oil as well as tar and charcoal. Methanol, or "wood alcohol," can be used to power cars and trucks, so can the fuel oil. In fact, the Diesel engine was originally designed to run on lower grade fuel oils, including hemp seed oil - which is mentioned specifically in Rudolph Diesel's papers.

There are other grasses that can be used to produce cellulose-based ethanol, such as poplar, willow, sweetgum and cottonwood, so I am not saying that hemp is the only answer, but no other alternative could produce the amount of energy that hemp could. If you add the fact that hemp can produce much more than just biomass energy, products such as cloth, paper, plastics and even food, and the argument for hemp gets even stronger.

Yet in all my searching, there is no government organization which even mentions hemp, not the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, nor US Department of Energy. The only thing I could find was a US Department of Agriculture report on its possible textile uses.

The only serious consideration of hemp as an energy source I could find was a study published in the UK which I was, unfortunately, unable to access. Reviews and quotes from the source, however, showed it to be in depth and balanced. Its conclusion was that energy from hemp is cheaper to produce than oil, nuclear, wind, solar or even wave technologies.

It is the antiquated anti-marijuana laws originally put in place by Harry Anslinger in the 1930's which are to blame for our ignorance concerning hemp. Although many of his most outrageous claims of violent, murderous drug lust, and his racist propaganda have been discredited, the undertones remain firmly imbedded in American culture.

In the mainstream media marijuana users are portrayed as either Rastafarians or slackers who are too buzzed up to remember their own names, e.g. the "Jeff Spicoli" character played by Sean Penn in the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High. For some reason we seem to be unable to separate our perception of "pot" from industrial hemp.

It is possible to grow a cannabis plant which produces little or no THC -- less than 1%, which wouldn't get anyone high! There are other useful products which can come from the cultivation of hemp and it could be a tremendous source of biomass energy. It should be at least brought to the same table as corn, switchgrass and the rest, to continue to ignore it is truly an insult to such a versatile and useful plant.