Hemp Biofuel: What it is, its potential, and why it hasn’t taken off yet

As one area of focus in transitioning away from fossil fuels, biofuels appeared to have a promising future. Unlike corn or other biomass used for biofuels, Hemp biofuel has not reached its potential highs. What is Hemp biofuel, what is its potential, and why hasn’t it taken off yet?

Hemp’s versatility has always been among its major selling points. Humans have used hemp in innumerable ingenious ways throughout history for a vast array of purposes. Today, hemp seed oil is used to make hemp biodiesel fuel. In this article we’re going to explain what biofuels are, the promising future people envisioned for biofuels, and why hemp-based biofuels have not reached the promise of other biomass grown for biofuels.

What is Biofuel?

Biofuels are made from biodegradable materials. Photo Credit: publicdomainvectors.org

Simply put, biodiesel is a renewable, biodegradable fuel. Vegetable oils, animal fats, grease, and seed oils are all sources of biomass to create biofuels. Essentially, biofuels are made from biodegradable material otherwise denoted as waste. Currently, corn is the primary biomass used for biofuels. For the fuel to be considered renewable, the sources of biomass have to be available on a recurring or regular basis. This makes biodiesel markedly different than its fossil fuel-based competition. This means that many biodegradable materials that are otherwise deemed waste have the possibility to be turned into combustible fuel. Identifying the concentration of biomaterial in fuel is easy and identical regardless of where on earth you live. Concentrations of biofuel are noted by the letter B, followed by the concentration of biofuel in the mixture as a percentage. So, B10 means that 10% of the fuel has been produced with biofuels. [1]

The Promise and Potential of Biofuels.

hemp biofuel
This tractor and farming operation in Delta, British Columbia could be powered entirely by hemp biofuels. Photo Credit: Province of British Columbia.

Advocates for increased biodiesel and biofuels production often use the promise and potential of these energy sources as viable fuels to assist with society’s transition from its reliance on fossil fuels. With the promise and potential for biofuels, Governments across the world have been providing significant support for developing biofuels as a competitive alternative to gasoline and conventional diesel. Policies to promote the growth of the biodiesel industry range from consumption incentives, production guarantees in the form of tax incentives or guaranteed loans, direct financial subsidies, and mandatory consumption requirements. Unlike vegetable-based biofuels, hemp has lagged behind its competitors as a biofuel option.

For agriculturalists, hemp has greater promise and potential than financial ends suggest. Farmers can plant hemp to help remediate toxin issues in the soil. Hemp seed oil is processed into biofuel and the remainder of the plant matter can be processed into methanol and ethanol. Kristina Etter notes that these hemp biofuels could power an entire farming operation and that hemp can be used to restore toxically polluted soil, a process called bioremediation.

Why hasn’t hemp biofuel reached the same promise and highs of other biofuels?

Prohibition and propaganda have played a significant role in hemp’s development as a viable biofuel. Photo Credit: https://publicdomainvectors.org/

Much of hemp’s slow growth as a biofuel can be attributed to confusing legal status, misinformation, cultural norms, and lack of understanding regarding hemp, cannabis, their differences, and the myriad of possible uses for these plants. The Ford Model T, first introduced in 1908, could have been fuelled by either gasoline or hemp biofuels. Throughout the twentieth century, hemp and cannabis suffered through a long and well-documented propaganda campaign, with destructive consequences for both plants and people alike. However, in the twenty-first century, hemp and cannabis have undergone significant changes in legality, societal understanding, education, and acceptance.

Government policies and legality had slowed hemp-focused research efforts until the twenty-first century. Biofuel researchers and agriculturalists have been able to utilize a wide variety of organic matter in their research and developed technology due to ease of access to raw material. Hemp’s contentious status means that hemp biofuel research, technology, and the market as a whole trail far behind the rest of the industry. Yet, hemp biofuels still have significant promise. Hemp’s versatility as a crop increased research, and supportive government policy will see the hemp biofuel industry grow.[3] For the hemp biofuel industry to grow, more hemp biomass needs to be produced and research conducted to idealize hemp to grow in warmer climates and for longer growing seasons. 

Proceed with Caution!

However, people must exercise caution with pursuing biofuel production. Biofuel production requires large quantities of freshwater: a limited resource on the planet. By allocating more land to biofuel production, humans will undoubtedly displace people, flora, fauna, and alter the landscape. Complicating matters is the fact that biodiesel and corn-based ethanol production is an “energy negative process,”[4] requiring more energy to produce the fuel than the fuel itself can produce. Further complications are raised as humans move toward renewable sources of energy for their fuel needs and slowly away from a reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels. 

While a market for hemp biofuels has yet to materialize, and as complicated as energy production, use, land transformation, and climate change are, hemp biofuel could be a valid and viable source of energy. With increased research, government funding, and societal acceptance of hemp and cannabis, a market for hemp biofuels will likely materialize as humans transition to renewable energy sources. Hemp’s versatility may prove to be the key that unlocks the promise of hemp biofuels.