Could Cannabis sativa be the industrial crop that saves the biofuel industry?
The debate over whether to legalize marijuana for either medicinal or recreational use is far from over, but new research has shown that cultivating the Cannabis plant for more practical purposes might solve the "food or fuel" conundrum once and for all.
Hemp, a THC-free cousin of the marijuana plant, has been used as a raw material to make fabric, rope, paper, and even sports cars. Now, researchers at University of Connecticut have found that industrial hemp has properties that make it viable and even attractive for producing biodiesel as well.
In laboratory tests, hemp biodiesel has shown a high efficiency of conversion (97 percent) and has properties that suggest it could be used at lower temperatures than any biodiesel currently on the market (Gizmag). At cold temperatures, molecules of some biofuels can aggregate and form crystals, plugging up vehicle fuel filters and limiting their commercial use.
According to Richard Parnas, a professor of chemical, materials, and biomolecular engineering at UConn, one of the most exciting things about hemp is that it grows "like a weed", even in infertile soils. This would allow industrial hemp to be grown for biofuel production without taking up primary crop lands.
“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," Parnas told Gizmag.
The problem? Currently, growing hemp (even though it contains less than 1 percent of the psychoactive elements that would make it desirable as a drug) is illegal in the United States.
Hopefully, this research will encourage the U.S. Government to reconsider its stance. In the meantime, Parnas hopes that the discovery will help to spur hemp biodiesel production in other parts of the world.