Hemp Biodiesel: When the Smoke Clears

Hemp literally produces a “green” product when it’s used to make biodiesel. Despite the allure of the green-hued fuel, a close examination of the controversial crop reveals several barriers for its use as a biodiesel feedstock in the near future. However, as movers and shakers attempt to legalize hemp farming in the United States, those barriers could go up in smoke.
By Holly Jessen

Today, high demand within the food market, limited production and low yields per acre make industrial hemp unattractive as a viable option for biodiesel production. That could change, however, if states like North Dakota can overcome federal road blocks to produce industrial hemp in the United States.

Although industrial hemp acres have doubled in Canada since 2005, it is still considered a specialty crop.

Paul Bobbee, a Canadian hemp grower, knows firsthand that under current market conditions, using industrial hemp as a biodiesel feedstock just wouldn’t pay. Hemp farming has been legal in Canada for about six years, while in the United States farmers are having difficulty getting the proper approval from the federal government to produce hemp. Because only limited acres of hemp are being grown at this time, it’s considered a niche crop and garners premium prices for use in products for the human health food market. “Every pound that’s being produced goes into the food chain,” Bobbee tells Biodiesel Magazine.

Bobbee is in a unique position to understand the positives and negatives of hemp as a feedstock for biodiesel. In addition to owning and operating Midlake Specialty Food Products, which grows hemp near Arborg, Manitoba, he’s involved with Bifrost Bio-Blends. Bifrost is a 2 MMly to 10 MMly (0.5 MMgy to 2.6 MMgy) proposed biodiesel plant that investors hope will attract the financing necessary to produce biodiesel sometime in the beginning of 2007. The plant’s main feedstock will be locally produced canola.

If it were economically viable, Bobbee could get more excited about making biodiesel from hemp. Several years ago, when the Canadian hemp industry wasn’t as well-established as it is now, Bobbee found himself with a surplus on his hands. A large hemp purchasing company went bankrupt, and suppliers like Bobbee were faced with low prices and few marketing options. The situation was particularly dire because hemp seed deteriorates after about a year in storage. The seed that Bobbee was stuck with was starting to go rancid. Since it could no longer be used in the food market, he took 20,000 liters (about 5,300 gallons) of hemp oil and turned it into biodiesel. Not only did the biodiesel have wonderful properties—better cloud point and cetane value than biodiesel made from canola or soy oil—its distinctive green color was a great marketing tool.

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