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Hemp Biofuel Blazes Competition

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gizmag

By Grant Banks

21:44 November 8, 2010

Researchers at University of Connecticut have found that industrial hemp has properties that make it attractive as a raw material for biofuel production

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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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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