While the food versus fuel debate continues to put crop-based biofuel production on the back burners it might just be Cannabis sativa that blazes the competition. Researchers at University of Connecticut have found that industrial hemp has properties that make it viable and even attractive as a raw material, or feedstock, for producing biodiesel. Hemp biodiesel has shown a high efficiency of conversion (97 percent) and has passed laboratory’s tests, even showing properties that suggest it could be used at lower temperatures than any biodiesel currently on the market.
The plant’s ability to grow in infertile soils also reduces the need to grow it on primary croplands, which can then be reserved for growing food according to Richard Parnas, a professor of chemical, materials, and biomolecular engineering at UConn.
“For sustainable fuels, often it comes down to a question of food versus fuel,” said Parnas, noting that major current biodiesel plants include food crops such as soybeans, olives, peanuts, and rapeseed. “It’s equally important to make fuel from plants that are not food, but also won’t need the high-quality land.”
Cannabis sativa is known for it's ability to grow like a "weed" in many parts of the world, needing little fertilizers, or high-grade inputs to flourish. But the seeds, which house the plant’s natural oils, are often discarded. Parnas points out that this apparent waste product could be put to good use by turning it into fuel.
“If someone is already growing hemp they might be able to produce enough fuel to power their whole farm with the oil from the seeds they produce. The fact that a hemp industry already exists means that a hemp biodiesel industry would need little additional investment," he said.
Although growing hemp is not legal in the U.S., Parnas hopes that the team’s results will help to spur hemp biodiesel production in other parts of the world. And while the Proposition 19 ballot in California to legalize Marijuana was defeated last week, the pathways have been opened for more discussion on Cannabis sativa production in the U.S..
As for other industries that utilize Cannabis plants, Parnas makes a clear distinction between industrial hemp, which contains less than one percent psychoactive chemicals in its flowers, and some of its cousins, which contain up to 22 percent.
“This stuff,” he pointed out, “won’t get you high.”
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