Is Hemp Biodiesel Fuel the Future for Automobiles?


Illustration by David Gahr

A recent report in Applied Energy by research groups from Pakistan, Italy, and Malaysia describes magnetic, nanometer sized, metal oxide catalyst particles that have the ability to convert hemp oil into biodiesel fuel. Likewise, biodiesel fuel is fast becoming an important source of energy as petroleum prices continue to rise.

The environmental costs of petroleum outweigh those of biodiesel, as biodiesel fuels are often derived from vegetable oils such as corn oil or soybean oil.

However, one problem with using corn or soy for fuel is that they affect food supply and food prices. Therefore, researchers have been focusing on finding alternative crops that produce sufficient oil and are not food products (as well as able to grow without need of fertilizers etc.).

Hemp is one of these promising options, as it’s a very hardy and high producing agricultural product. Hemp also produces strong fibers that make numerous products in the textile industry.

The magnetic catalyst mentioned above is useful because it can easily be removed after the chemical reaction is complete via magnetism. Traditional catalysts for the reaction, which transforms triacylglycerides into esters, are simple bases such as sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. Yet the literature reports using these simple bases describe a laborious procedure to remove the base at the end of the reaction. This difficulty reduces the efficiency, increases the cost, and could lead to problems on a larger production scale.

A little less recent, but exciting report back from 2010, describes a catalyst that does two reactions. This CuO/SrO dual catalyst does the transesterification (described a couple lines above) followed by a hydrogenation reaction, which adds hydrogen atoms onto carbon-carbon double bonds.

The dual catalyst accomplishes this in “one-pot”, which is a big deal for chemists and engineers because it saves a lot of work. This action turns multi-step processes into a single process and saves time and labor. The hydrogenation reaction is very important to obtain the appropriate burning standards according to American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standard methods.

Thus, if these studies progress and hemp biodiesel fuel reaches critical mass in a decade or two, people could very well be filling their gas tanks with hemp biodiesel fuel. That is, if people are still driving cars by then.

About Author

Anthony Burke earned simultaneous bachelor's degrees in chemistry and plant biology in 2004 from the College of Chemistry and College of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley. He went on to earn his PhD in chemistry at UC Irvine in 2011, with a focus on natural product synthesis and tandem mass spectrometry for proteomics research. Postdoctoral research in organic nanomaterials was also completed at UC Irvine in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. He now works for Ghost Group as the Chief Scientific Officer.

1 Comment

  1. If you check out Jack Herrer’s book, “The Emperor Wears No Clothes”, you’ll find that bio fuels, paper, industrial textiles, consumer goods, building materials, ships and ropes and medicine are all possible to be produced from Hemp. Pre-industrial Revolution, most pf these items were created from Hemp as most farms grew it.

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