Researchers at Universtiy of Connecticut have found that the fiber crop Cannabis sativa, known as industrial hemp, has properties that make it viable and even attractive as a raw material, or feedstock, for producing biodiesel – sustainable diesel fuel made from renewable plant sources.
The plant’s ability to grow in infertile soils also reduces the need to grow it on primary croplands, which can then be reserved for growing food, says Richard Parnas, a professor of chemical, materials, and biomolecular engineering who led the study.
“For sustainable fuels, often it comes down to a question of food versus fuel,” says Parnas, noting that major current biodiesel plants include food crops such as soybeans, olives, peanuts, and rapeseed. “It’s equally important to make fuel from plants that are not food, but also won’t need the high-quality land.”
Industrial hemp is grown across the world, in many parts of Europe and Asia. Fiber from the plant’s stalk is strong, and until the development of synthetic fibers in the 1950s, it was a premier product used worldwide in making rope and clothing.
Today, there are still parts of the world that rely on Cannabis stalks as a primary fiber, mainly because of its ability to grow “like a weed,” without requiring lots of water, fertilizers, or high-grade inputs to flourish. But the seeds, which house the plant’s natural oils, are often discarded. Parnas points out that this apparent waste product could be put to good use by turning it into fuel.