Hemp is the common name for the botanical class of plants Cannabis sativa. Around the world, people grow hemp for a wide variety of industrial and medicinal uses. Hemp is one of the oldest spun fiber plant sources, with a record of use dating back 50,000 years. In addition to clothing fiber, hemp can also be used to make biofuel, paper, rope, animal feed, biodegradable plastics, insulation, and paint.
As one of the fastest-growing fibrous plants, hemp is an efficient use of arable land. Because it has minimal need for fertilizers and pesticides, producing hemp biomass is more environmentally friendly than sugar beet, palm oil, corn, or other crops. Studies show that hemp cultivation reduces the consumption of fossil fuels, reduces carbon emissions, aids in forest conservation, and eases landfill use. For public and private organizations developing green initiatives, hemp is a superior plant both environmentally and economically in a wealth of applications.
Beneficial Uses of Hemp
Hemp has many uses as a source of energy, nutrition, and textile materials.
1. Hemp Renewable Energy
Hemp is a promising and versatile source of renewable energy. As the consumption of non-renewable energy sources such as fossil fuels has harmful, long-term, and potentially irreversible effects on the environment, transitioning to renewable energy has become a critical global imperative. Hemp has many properties that can aid in this transition such as its resilience and efficiency as a biofuel.
The Importance of Biofuels
At current rates of use, the global consumption of fossil fuels releases 34 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere every year. The buildup of CO2 contributes to the greenhouse effect — the properties of Earth’s atmospheric gases that allow short-wave radiation from the sun to enter the atmosphere but prevent the emission of long-wave heat radiation.
Because plants consume atmospheric CO2, growing and burning plants as fuel create a sustainable energy cycle — moving CO2 from the atmosphere to plant mass and back again in biofuel burning — and causes no net CO2 emissions. However, based on their rate of CO2 consumption, time to maturity, and acreage density, different plants have highly variable utility as biofuels.
Hemp Biofuel Benefits
Hemp is an excellent source of plant-based biofuel for many reasons:
- Hemp plants grow to harvest maturity in just four months, compared to 10–12 months for crops such as sugar cane.
- Hemp is naturally pest-resistant, requiring relatively small amounts of pesticides to cultivate.
- Hemp grows taller than most wild weeds.
- Hemp extracts soil nutrients with high efficiency, reducing the need for fertilizers.
- The yield of hemp fuel per acre is high. A single acre of hemp yields 700 pounds of grain that harvesters can press into 39 gallons of oil — twice as much as corn oil yields (18 gallons).
- Hemp consumes more CO2 per unit of biomass than trees and has the biochemical potential to generate a carbon-neutral energy cycle.
- Hemp plants return nutrients to the soil where they grow and efficiently sequester atmospheric CO2.
Hemp Fuel for Cars and Combustion Engines
Hemp fuel for cars and other combustion engine machinery has several advantages over gasoline.
- Not only does hemp fuel produce lower carbon emissions than gasoline, ethanol, and traditional petroleum-based fuels, but it also has greater overall fuel efficiency.
- Hemp plants thrive in a wider variety of climates than other sources of biofuel such as corn or sugar cane, allowing more parts of the world the potential to produce biofuel locally.
- Biofuels produced from corn and rice cut into the global food supply, while hemp can be cultivated for multiple purposes — biofuel, food, fibrous material — simultaneously and on marginal land that cannot support other crops.
- Hemp fuels are biodegradable, eliminating the risk of environmental harm through spills.
- With 11% oxygen, hemp fuels are lightweight and easy to transport.
- Hemp fuel vs. gasoline is superior as an engine lubricant, extending the lifetime of combustion engines.
- Hemp performs comparably with petroleum diesel for engine ignition and torque.
- Hemp fuels meet the standards of the Clean Air Act.
2. Hemp Energy Drink
A growing number of beverage producers — including Pepsi and Rockstar — have recently begun making hemp-based energy drinks with hemp seed oil. Consumption of hemp seed oil has many health benefits, making hemp an excellent ingredient for energy drinks.
- Hemp seed oil has a high omega-3 fatty acid (alpha-linolenic acid) content which can help lower blood pressure in people with hypertension and promote overall heart health.
- Hemp seed oil contains omega-6 fatty acids (linoleic acids) that can reduce cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein levels, lowering the risks of high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease.
- The gamma-linoleic acids (GLAs) found in hemp seed are effective as an anti-inflammatory and can help mitigate symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and multiple sclerosis (MS).
- Hemp seed is a great natural source of iron and magnesium.
- The calories in hemp seed oil are slow-burning compared to the carbohydrates in corn syrups, providing a sustained energy boost instead of a rapid spike.
3. Hemp as a Potential Raw Material
Global wood consumption in paper and building materials is on pace to grow by 37% before 2050. As the need for wood materials continues to grow at a faster rate than forests replenish, it becomes increasingly important for companies that make wood and paper products to develop alternatives to conventional wood plants.
Hemp as a Replacement for Wood Products
Hemp biomass provides a non-woody raw material with many desirable characteristics and can replace wood materials in many applications.
- Hemp yields more biomass per land unit than trees.
- Hemp contains twice as many useable fibers as wood.
- Raw industrial hemp is 77% cellulose and has the potential to produce four times the amount of paper as wood.
- Hemp can be harvested every four months, whereas trees require 10–12 years to cultivate and 20–80 years to rotate.
- Hemp cultivation reduces the chemical leakage of dioxins such as chlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (CDDs) and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs) into the environment from herbicidal sources.
Hemp Composites and Plastics
In addition to meeting paper and wood needs, hemp can also serve as a base material for many kinds of composites and plastics.
- Manufacturers in the automotive industry have had success making door panels, passenger rear decks, boot linings, and pillars from hemp-based biodegradable matrices.
- Hemp fibers have a vibration-dampening effect that makes them useful for avionics installations.
- Hemp polycaprolactone composites work well in orthotic devices.
- Hemp cellulose can be manufactured into a variety of biodegradable plastics such as rayon, celluloid, and cellophane.
- Although they degrade rapidly, hemp plastics are five times as durable as plastics produced from fossil hydrocarbons.
- With modern production methods, hemp plastics are comparable in production costs to traditional plastics.
4. Industrial Hemp Fiber: A Sustainable and Economical Alternative to Cotton
People have used hemp fiber to make clothing and other cloth textiles for thousands of years. However, cotton is currently the plant fiber of choice for makers of clothing around the world. Cotton cultivation consumes a disproportionate amount of resources, has harmful effects on the environment, and is inefficient compared to industrial hemp fiber.
Worldwide, cotton takes up 2.5% of agricultural land but consumes 4% of all nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers, 16% of pesticides, and 7% of herbicides. In contrast, hemp production consumes fewer resources for a higher fiber yield, and hemp fiber has many properties to recommend as a clothing and textile material.
- Biodegradability: Hemp fiber biodegrades completely over six months and can be composted.
- Durability: Hemp fiber is more durable than cotton fiber and softens to a gentle texture after washing.
- UV Blocking: Hemp fiber blocks 50% more UV rays than cotton and polyester.
- Hypoallergenic Consistency: Hemp fiber is naturally hypoallergenic, making it a superior choice for sensitive skin.
- Breathability: Hemp fiber is breathable and has insulating properties, keeping wearers warm in cold weather and cool in hot weather.
- Vapor Action: Hemp fiber is vapor-active, absorbing and releasing water vapor which makes it thermally efficient as clothing and as insulation for buildings.
Toward a Sustainable World: A Review
Sustainability is becoming an increasingly important value in public consumption around the globe. Among consumers, 75% report that they are concerned about the long-term environmental impact of the products they buy, and 65% will pay more for products that reduce carbon footprints. Hemp has an important role to play in shifting our consumption habits toward sustainability.
As it has practical applications as fuel, raw material, and food, hemp contributes to sustainability in several different ways simultaneously.
- Biofuel: Biofuels replace CO2 emissions with a carbon-neutral cycle.
- Food: Hemp seed oil can be extracted from hemp plants grown for other purposes, meaning cultivators don’t have to decide between producing materials, food, or biofuels.
- Material: Hemp products can replace wood, cotton, and plastics in many cases, requiring fewer resources to produce and limiting the production of non-biodegradables.
For both governments and private enterprises developing sustainability initiatives, hemp should be a part of the conversation. With applications in such a wide range of industries and sectors, hemp has the potential to contribute to most green plans, and hemp sustainability should feature in any vision of a more sustainable world.
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