May 31, 2010 – The events taking place in the Gulf of Mexico have sounded alarms for a rallying cry for new alternative fuels. The best of these may come from hemp.
Hemp has been cultivated for its many uses for the past 12,000 years. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp on their farms, mostly for the beneficial products provided by its fibers and seeds. Though one of the most versatile and fastest growing plants in the world, hemp has long endured image problems because of its pharmacological properties. Yet a closer look at hemp reveals that it may provide a large piece of the puzzle in solving our current and future energy and ecological dilemmas.
The car culture in America has been going strong since the end of World War II and despite financial woes and gas prices north of three dollars per gallon, shows no signs of declining. Crude oil for gasoline represents just one of the ways oil permeates nearly every facet of our lives. Most synthetic clothing fibers are derived from petroleum, for example. Disposable diapers, combs, cosmetics, trash bags and food preservatives form part of a list pages long of everyday products derived from oil. This is why electric cars solve only part of the oil-overconsumption problem.
The mention of the word causes visions of stoned slackers in comedy movies yet hemp may be the ultimate natural resource. According to the website hempcar.org, hempseed oil can be produced into non-toxic diesel fuel. In addition, hemp cellulose fibers can be fermented and converted into ethanol fuel. Hemp can also be used to produce fiberboard that is lighter than wood, stronger than wood and fire resistant. One acre of hemp produces as much fiber as two to three acres of cotton and clothing from its fibers lasts longer. Finally, hemp from paper is stronger and more recyclable than wood fiber.
Millions of wild hemp plants currently grow throughout the United States. Unlike cotton, which requires a moderate climate, hemp grows in all fifty states. Yet cultivation of hemp has been largely outlawed in this country since the late 1930s because of its pharmacological properties. Wild hemp, similar to the types grown in other countries for industrial use, contains only trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive drug component. Still, marijuana laws prevent farmers from cultivating a plant that already flourishes in nature.
Hemp fiber has long been suited for rope. During World War II, the government sanctioned hemp farms for the quick production of sturdy rope fiber. It was long thought that hemp fiber would be too rough and scratchy against delicate human skin, for clothing, yet today’s re-engineered fibers produce softer, more comfortable textiles.