Business, Politics, Sci-Tech

Getting high on the idea of a hemp-fuelled Transkei

By Branko Brkic 11 December 2009

Remember when in 1903 the head honcho of the Michigan Savings Bank advised Henry Ford's lawyer not to invest in his car company: "The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad." Or when in 1968, IBM’s Robert Lloyd said of the microprocessor: "But what ... is it good for?” OK, you don’t. So we’ll bet you don’t think the Transkei’s energy needs can be fuelled by a weed's first cousin.

Photo courtesy

We admit up front, it’s hard to find any credible science and economics for the energy-versus-costs debate over hemp. And this theory won’t be everyone’s cup of tea (organic hemp tea, that is). But look at it this way. Betamax fell to VHS. IBM out-spent and out-marketed everybody else in creating fewer PCs and operating systems. And oil companies long ago chose to produce oil instead of ethanol, smearing and bullying competitors along the way.

Here’s the idea. Let the mighty marijuana trade morph into growing hemp. You can smoke it, but nothing will happen – the psychoactive ingredient is minute. This stuff can fuel electricity plants. It’s sort of legal in the EU, Canada, Australia and the US (needs some paperwork). So, use the spin-offs – rope, clothing, paper etc. – to create jobs and bridge the rivers and gorges that too often stop kids from going to school (kids dressed in hemp clothes, crossing hemp bridges, and using hemp paper for their homework – and in their PC printers).

Ford made a car using hemp, and ran it on the by-product. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson cultivated it. Benjamin Franklin started the first American paper mill using hemp. Even the Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp fibre paper. Industrial hemp can grow in many climates on marginal soil. It doesn’t need much by way of herbicide and needs no pesticide. It uses water quite sparingly. You can eat the oils, and it sucks up water pollutants, too. Heck, we’d like to say it’s the silver bullet for cancer, but we’re not there yet.

So, the benefits to Transkei (for example) are not as pie in the sky as you might think, despite the fact that many hemp proponents belong in the realm of science fiction, and even places much more left-field than that. But, hey, humans got to the moon in their imaginations long before it became a reality, and Einstein would have said that’s why they could.

Biomass can also be used for insulation, or can be cut into logs for heating. Oilgae, which dubs itself one of the most well-known brands in the biofuels industry (it’s not Coca-Cola, we know), is into algae fuels (more about that later). But it also says hemp plants produce about half a ton of seeds an acre. These seeds contain 30% oil, which is higher than the 18% in soybeans, is equal to canola, and is slightly exceeded by flax at 40% oil. And while hemp oil degrades more quickly than other vegetable oils, and is much more expensive to produce than current oil crops, it’s basically a weed that grows like crazy, sucking up carbon and producing oxygen.

But we better tell you about the legality of hemp. Most industrial strains have less than 0.3% of the psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, comparing it with dagga’s 3% to 15% , which means kids can’t pluck it on their way home from school and get high. And while the law currently backs South Africa’s health authorities, who still worry because it’s a cousin of marijuana, many government departments and universities have joined hands to research hemp cultivation for at least a decade, helping fund companies such as House of Hemp to sell hemp clothing, home décor, stationery and cosmetics, made by previously disadvantaged entrepreneurs. Other retailers such as Hemptons are licensed to sell imported finished hemp products, including nutritional oils and foods.

University research shows that hemp is one of the fastest growing biomasses known to man. It produces up to 25 tonnes of dry matter a hectare a year. Hemp biodiesel can theoretically be a source of energy, even though Oilgae says it doesn’t offer significant advantages over other sources of biodiesel. The trick (a word that got the University of East Anglia into big trouble) is to raise octane levels from such biofuels. But again, hakuna matata. Even though the guys at Oilgae say that hemp doesn’t offer significant advantages over other biodiesel sources at present, that also means that it doesn’t lack advantages. And hemp production is only expensive in places like the US, where tractors, combine harvesters and other mod-cons are driven around by relatively well-paid farmers and their wives (with the odd bit of cheap Mexican labour thrown in). In Transkei, one just has to throw the seed at the ground and, hey presto, it grows like the weed it is.

Photo: Hemp fibres

Now, Transkei also has huge problems with soil erosion, so this could solve that issue too. So, on to pyrolysis, where one applies high heat to biomass, or plant and tree matter, using little or no air. Currently you get low-grade fuel oil with energy output of about 40% that of petroleum diesel. But the hemp gurus say emissions from coal-fired power plants and cars can be reduced by converting biomass to fuel using pyrolysis. This produces power through resultant fuels such as charcoal, synthetic gas, ethanol, methane and methanol. There’s lots of variety here, depending on the scientific approach, which provides plenty of latitude over input and output costs.

Converting hemp cellulose into ethanol can be done in several ways, including gasification, acid hydrolysis and converting cellulose to glucose, which is fermented to make alcohol. The costs of this process are vital. But these have already drawn the attention of US federal tax credits among other incentives. Conversion rates range from 25 to 100 US gallons a tonne of biomass (the Brits measure this slightly differently). Cellulose provides hydrocarbons necessary for fuel production. Low-moisture hemp is 80% cellulose and some believe the added cost of drying high-moisture crops such as sugarcane and corn, make them a less-efficient source of products such as ethanol and methanol, whatever the Brazilians might think.

Ethanol’s cousin, methanol, can power very cheap cooking stoves. It’s highly toxic, but pretty easy to handle. The University of Hawaii bio-methanol facility says 95,000 acres planted under hemp will produce 1.7 billion litres a year of methanol, at a cost of $335 million to build the plant. At retail sales of US 50cents a litre (which is pricey), that’s a good return over time. No less an authority than the Stanford Research Institute said in the late 1970s already that woody or low-moisture herbaceous plants – such as hemp — better convert into liquid fuels such as methanol. The rules of Monster Trucks (a typically American pastime) require the use of pure methanol, and it’s also used in dirt track series such Motorcycle Speedway, and until recently, the Indianapolis 500.

To be sure, there is much science that still needs to be done. But ethanol is already widely used as a vehicle fuel and fuel additive. Henry Ford’s famous Model T Ford was built to run on pure ethanol, which he said was the “the fuel of the future”. It’s also the pure alcohol used in medicines and lots of foodstuffs. Brazil has the largest fuel ethanol industry made from sugarcane and more than 90% of new cars sold in that country can run on ethanol. But while sugarcane plantations have high carbon sequestration capabilities, which help combat climate change, ethanol also produces chemicals that boost ozone levels when ignited in internal combustion engines.

While biofuels provide a fraction of conventional fuel needs, places as diverse as Malawi and Sri Lanka have produced cars that run on raw biofuels or mixes. And energy majors are researching this, too. Exxon Mobil is to spend more than $600 million on researching and developing biofuels from photosynthetic algae, which are compatible with petrol and diesel products. And while there are currently far more questions than answers over biofuels, they don’t differ too much from the technologies and market incentives that the Copenhagen summit needs to deliver on. And they’re not much different from how wrong others were over the future of the car and the microprocessor.

So, the government doesn’t want to have to apologise to the people of Transkei the way The New York Times apologised to Robert H. Goddard the day after Apollo 11 went to the moon in 1969, when it said sorry for its deeply offensive 1920 editorial that told Goddard his, or anybody else’s, rockets wouldn’t fly. No wise man should bet against hemp to solve a few of our problems in the future.

By Mark Allix

Read more: Enviropaedia, South African Government Information, House of Hemp, Hemptons, SRI International, SRI Consulting, Hemp4Fuel, North American Industrial Hemp Council, Oilgae, American Chemical Society, Rat Haus, Hemp Plastic, Iowa State University, Exxon Mobil