Hemp
'Hemp is certainly doing more good than its psychoactive cousin ever did'
Jack Fosberry | 6 March 2016

What is Hemp?

Hemp is a term used for high­growing varieties of the Cannabis plant and its products, with uses as varied as fibres, oils and seeds. These products can then be further refined into more useful products, including hemp seed, foods, hemp oil, wax, resin, rope, cloth, pulp, paper and, most relevant to this article, fuel. Hemp is often grown in large quantities for industrial usage, and is distinguishable from its more common relative, the marijuana plant, by the height it grows to: hemp plants vary in size, but are generally taller. 

However, due to its similarities to the marijuana plant, government authorities in particular countries are wary of mass producing the plant, fearing that it may be used as an excuse to grow illegal substances. In fact, due to this exact reason, the United Nations banned the cultivation of the crop in 1961, a decision that was later revoked in the 1990s by the European Union.

However, hemp is becoming increasingly useful, as the number of products that it can be manufactured into is always growing. Due to this, its mass production is a hotly­debated topic in most governments, who realise both its positive and negative effects. It is mostly being considered as an alternative to burning fossil fuels, as it is a far more “eco­friendly” alternative, as well as being a renewable source of energy. Hemp is considered as a biofuel due to it being a more environmentally friendly alternative fuel source.

How can hemp be used as a fuel source?

Even though hemp is not used extensively as an energy source today, many scientists believe it to be a fuel of the future. The current problem is a technological one: scientists simply cannot harness hemp efficiently.

Sweden is currently the leading country in promoting the use of hemp as a renewable energy source, with a small but revolutionary plant that produces hemp briquettes – small blocks of hemp which are used as a fuel source when burnt. However, hemp briquettes are quite expensive in comparison to wooden ones and, due to the inefficient processes involved in making the hemp briquettes, they are not particularly efficient.

As an alternative route to clean fuels, biogas can be produced from hemp. Biogas is produced from the breakdown of hemp in the absence of oxygen, the anaerobic digestion with bacteria or fermentation of biodegradable materials, which in this case is hemp. The gases produced can then either be burnt, e.g. for cooking purposes, or compressed to be used to power objects such as motor vehicles. Ethanol can also be produced by a fermentation process, opening up applications in industry such as solvents and as a feedstock.

Biodiesel is another potential use of hemp. Biodiesel produced from hemp has unsurprisingly been shown to have a lot less of an effect on the environment compared to diesel produced from fossil fuels. Biodiesel is produced by reacting hemp seed oil with an alcohol in a transesterification reaction.

The reason for the small effect of Hemp on the environment is the fact that it is “carbon neutral”, meaning that no more carbon is released by burning the hemp than was consumed by growing it, helping to slow global warming and potentially limiting the damage done to our environment for a little longer.

Hemp is certainly doing more good than its psychoactive cousin ever did!

James Routledge 2016