When we look at the progress of humanity, there’s no doubt that oil and coal have played a crucial role. But there are many problems associated with these fossil fuels, such as resource wars, climate change, pollution, etc., so their continued use could also lead to the demise of humanity. While in past years the biggest concern was that fossil fuels are running out, today the main issue lies in the damage they’re wreaking on the planet.
While one part of this dilemma was addressed by the appearance of electric vehicles, the future of transport still requires some liquid and solid fuels. That’s why renewable energy has become mandatory, and its currently fastest growing source is bioenergy. The only way to decrease dependency on depleting fossils is to cultivate energy crops on arable land, which can also mitigate climate change. Nevertheless, there are bad environmental effects even among biofuel crops – some create more emissions then they save, some use too much water, etc. So the real demand of today is for high-yielding energy crops which have a low environmental impact, and industrial hemp just might be the thing. The enthusiasts have been promoting industrial hemp as the ultimate biofuel crop for a long time now, so let’s see if there’s more in it than sheer enthusiasm.
The Superiority And The Obstacle
What makes hemp not only equal but superior to other available energy crops is its suitability to fit into existing crop rotations and its potentially high biomass yield. This plant originates from India and western Asia, but today it’s spread all around the globe. Its seeds have been used for centuries to produce protein-rich food, while its fibers were used to make paper, cloth, sails, and ropes. This means that hemp is a solution that’s both versatile and ancient. When other fibers such as jute and sisal replaced hemp in the 19th century the interest for it declined, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still a solution to many problems of today. The real obstacle came with abuse of hemp as a drug which has lead to the prohibition of its cultivation in 1961 by the United Nations. Nevertheless, this prohibition was revoked in the 1990’s, first in European Union and Canada and later in Australia, and the industrial hemp has emerged again.
The Resurrection Through The Car Industry
The thing that largely influenced the resurrection of industrial hemp and promoted its use was the interest of the car industry in natural and light fiber. That’s mainly what has led to the growth of modern varieties of hemp with insignificant content of psychoactive compounds for industrial use. Of course, the above-mentioned potential for higher biomass yield was the most important factor. With its ability to produce more than 800 liters of bio-diesel per hectare a year, hemp brings a much greater yield compared to other crops commonly used for biodiesel production such as rapeseed, peanut, sunflower, or soybean. Additionally, the rest of the plant also has the potential to produce solid fuels, biogas, ethanol, and methanol. Besides the fact that it meets the EN 14214 and ASTM D6751 standards for quality, hemp biodiesel is a fuel that is superior to other plant-based products. The only area where it doesn’t outperform conventional diesel is oxidation stability, but that can be easily addressed with the addition of anti-oxidants.
All this strongly suggests the large-scale energy uses of hemp. Its biogas production can easily compete with the one from maize, especially when it comes to cold climate regions such as Canada and Northern Europe. While biodiesel can be produced from the oil which is pressed from hemp seeds, ethanol production is possible from the whole plant. Furthermore, biodiesel produced from hemp seed oil has a much lower overall environmental impact than fossil diesel. The fact that the environmental benefits of hemp are praised highly has a strong foundation since only very limited amounts of pesticide are required for its cultivation. Fungal diseases are a rarity concerning hemp crops and insect pests are nearly non-existent.
The Importance of Good Agricultural Practice
What is particularly interesting for organic farmers is that hemp plants can outgrow weeds due to the fact that they shade the ground quickly after sowing. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean that weed-free seedbed is not required. And in order to allow hemp to grow vigorously nitrogen fertilization is mandatory. This means that growing hemp right requires good agricultural practice as with any other crop. But it functions very well in crop rotations since it’s an annual crop – it can reduce the occurrence of pests and function as a break crop. And thanks to its high self-tolerance the cultivation of hemp up to three years in the same filed won’t result in significant biomass yield losses. However, while small-scale production of hemp has been proven economically feasible, using whole-crop hemp is not an overall solution for energy production, but that’s the case with any other crop.
Despite all of the mentioned advantages of hemp, sustainable bioenergy production requires a diversity of crops. But still, as far as the biofuel is concerned, cultivating industrial hemp on good soil and with decent fertilization can make it the ultimate crop for the occasion.