Biomass as a fuel source has been around ever since humans thought to rub two sticks together. While fossil fuels have long since usurped it as the go-to energy source used to power our cities, biomass still accounts for around 1.3% of the energy produced in the US.
Modern bioethanol and biodiesel produce energy through the same chemical process as prehistoric wood fires and fossil fuels by releasing the latent energy stored in the fuel in the form of heat. This process is called combustion, and it is commonly found in combustion engines powering many modern machines.
Biofuels have recently become more popular due to their reduced emissions while burning and the renewable nature of plant biomass compared to fossil fuels. It is still controversial whether using biofuels is a net environmental benefit due to the climate implications of the industrial farming required for production. Palm oil is specifically under fire due to the deforestation effects of large palm plantations.
Researchers have begun studying the possibility of using hemp as a feedstock for biofuels as an alternative to popular crops like palm and soybeans. Concentrated hemp oil and other hemp biomass can be refined into bioethanol with a similar yield to other popular feedstocks. As a relatively durable crop, hemp is easy to cultivate and requires little or no pesticides and chemical additives to flourish. This makes it an attractive option from an environmental perspective.
Perhaps the most compelling case for hemp is the fact that much of the refinable biomass produced by hemp plants is traditionally viewed as waste by cultivators. Many industrial cultivators decline to collect and package the hemp oil, leaves, and stems of the plant. Repurposing this waste would be significantly more efficient than producing full harvests of other materials grown explicitly for biofuel production. Research in this space is somewhat limited due to the sociopolitical stigma surrounding the cannabis industry.
As a novel source of biofuel, hemp will have to overcome the same challenges of economic viability, environmental issues, and industry adoption that other biofuels face, as well as an elevated level of regulation. Despite this, hemp is compelling as a possible source of renewable energy.
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