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Hemp Cars: Are Hemp-Based Fuel and Plastic the Future?

Hemp, the most sustainable raw material in the world, can be incorporated into car bodies and used as biofuel. Henry Ford was the first engineer to include hemp fiber in automotive parts. Meanwhile, high-end manufacturers are discovering the benefits of hemp in automotive construction. Including hemp makes cars lighter and safer.

The tallest building in the world is currently under construction in the Nevada desert. Construction is not yet complete, but Tesla’s Gigafactory already occupies a space of more than 1.9 million square meters (two million square feet). It was commissioned by Elon Musk, one of the richest men in the world. Musk is hailed by many as the savior of the struggling auto industry. Since declaring war on the oil industry, he has quickly gone from strength to strength with his automaker Tesla.

However, climate experts agree that electric cars are not the panacea some think they are. The production and disposal of lithium batteries is not only expensive, but also bad for the environment. There is a green alternative to steel and batteries which is little talked about but which offers very good prospects: hemp-based products.

Hemp, the most sustainable raw material in the world

Hemp or marijuana plants growing in the sun on the farm field.

hemp has been used for thousands of years for products such as ropes and Clothes. After World War II, hemp cultivation became illegal. This was partly due to lobbying by DuPont, the American manufacturer of synthetic materials. It wasn’t until 2018 that hemp cultivation was re-legalized in United States.

“Fortunately!” says HempFlax CEO Mark Reinders when asked. “Hemp is the most sustainable raw material in the world. You do not need pesticides for its cultivation because it grows faster than weeds. The yield per hectare is also incredible. From each hectare of hemp, we harvest 2000 kg of fiber, compared to around 400 kg of cotton. HempLinen is the world leader in hemp production. The company, founded in 1993, grows hemp in the Netherlands, Germany and Romania.

The possibilities of hemp are endless. HempFlax hemp is used, for example, for the interior panels of Mercedes, Bentley, Bugatti and BMW. Reinders says: “Door panels are usually made of plastic and fiber. Hemp is thirty times lighter than fiberglass, reducing car fuel costs. Moreover, only one tenth of the energy is needed to produce hemp.

So, is hemp cheaper than other fibers? Reinders is hesitant: “Only if the price of oil stays above $100 a barrel can we follow. Yet we are not too expensive. This is because fiberglass is far too cheap because manufacturers don’t pay for the environmental damage and CO2 emissions it causes.

5 key benefits of hemp for the automotive industry

Hemp stalks are rich in cellulose. They are used as a base for a variety of bioplastics. As Reinders explained, hemp is already used to make automotive parts and its benefits are obvious:

  1. Hemp-based bioplastic is stronger than steel. It can be used to make car bodies less prone to dents and dents.
  2. Hemp-based bioplastic is lighter than fiberglass and steel. Less weight translates into better propulsion and less fuel consumption.
  3. Hemp allows a more environmentally friendly production process. The automotive industry could thus improve its disastrous CO2 balance. Worldwide, this industry is responsible for 9% of CO2 emissions. Its ecological footprint is greater than that of the whole of the EU.
  4. Hemp oil as a fuel offers many benefits. Hemp oil burns CO2 neutrally and produces less soot and gas, and no harmful aromatic compounds or benzenes. However, biofuels bring their own problems.
  5. Hemp can be grown almost anywhere without pesticides and used to make bioplastics. Most hemp-based bioplastics are biodegradable.

Undoubtedly hemp offers many advantages for the propulsion and construction of vehicles. Henry Ford and Bruce Dietzen built two interesting cars that combine all these advantages.

The cannabis car that was once nowhere to be found

Long before the world started talking about electric runabouts and hydrogen-powered race cars, Henry Ford introduced a vehicle that even today, more than 80 years later, could be called a green car.

In the 1930s, Ford tested plastic parts for cars. The result was a vehicle weighing 500 kg less than a conventional steel car. Fourteen plastic plates were attached to a steel frame. The exact composition is still unknown today. The plastic parts were probably made from soybeans, wheat, hemp, and flax.

Ford commissioned Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the diesel engine, to develop the propulsion system for this car. Rudolf Diesel built an engine that could run on vegetable oil and hemp. Ford believed in the potential of biofuels; he was quoted as saying, “There is enough alcohol in the annual yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery needed to cultivate the fields for a hundred years.”

World War II put an end to Ford’s revolutionary plans. Car production came to a halt and later the influence of the already powerful oil lobby, which had no interest in developing alternative fuels, grew.

Ford’s car went down in history as the “hemp car”. The more correct term would be “Soybean Car”, as the Henry Ford Museum suggests on its website. The “Hemp Car” title actually belongs to Bruce Dietzen, who stepped into the limelight with his Renew sports car.

The hemp-based sports car – lighter than glass and stronger than steel

Inspired by Ford’s “Soybean Car”, entrepreneur Bruce Dietzen invested €165,000 ($200,000) to build a special sports car. His “green car” is based on the body of a Mazda MX-5, which Dietzen recreated with approximately 50 kg of woven hemp.

With this one, he intended to show the multiple uses of cannabis, and to remove the taboos which had happened during theChill Madnessera that still haunts the minds of many Americans. “Hemp from cannabis cultivation is still dangerous according to the government. As a drug, it is considered as dangerous as heroin or cocaine – it’s crazy,” Dietzen said in an interview.

Since hemp was still illegal in 2016, he had to import the raw material from China. He is visibly proud of his car, which is exceptionally light and robust. Its impact-resistant body (ten times stronger than steel) offers great resistance to bumps and dents. Dietzen is convinced that it would take far fewer repairs after an accident than conventional cars.

The “green car” is the result of hard work and a great example of the potential of hemp in car manufacturing. However, it remains a unique piece and no hemp car has been produced on a large scale to date. Motive Industry tried to do it with Kestrel, an electric car whose body was entirely made of hemp. In 2013, the Canadian company wanted to start mass production, but so far has not done so.

High-end manufacturers bet on hemp

The i3 Electric City Car and the i8 Hybrid Super Sports Car are two vehicles from BMW that are partly constructed from hemp plastic

In 2012, University of Warwick researcher James Meredith published a paper proving that hemp composites are viable substitutes for fiberglass used in car panels.

Of the three natural composites tested (non-woven hemp, woven linen, and woven jute), hemp showed the highest specific energy absorption (SEA). This means that it can withstand enormous pressure compared to its very light mass.

The European automotive industry has been using plastic parts made from hemp for some time. The Lotus Eco Elise was the first road-ready car to be made primarily from hemp materials – not only in the panels, but also in the interior textiles. BMW also relies on hemp for some of its high-end models, including the BMW i3, which has won numerous awards but is now somewhat outdated as an electric car.

No topic dominates the automotive industry as often as sustainability. While once only insiders knew that hemp was used in some Porsche and Lamborghini dashboards, the use of environmentally friendly materials has now become a selling point.

Polestar, Swedish subsidiary of Volvo promotes vegan cork and hemp interiors in its marketing materials. Leather is only available upon specific request.

It will be interesting to see what innovations the automotive industry has in store for us and what forms of propulsion will ultimately “win the race”. One thing seems clear, at least inside the car, hemp will be indispensable.

Do you think hemp could make a big enough difference to mitigate the damage caused by car production? Would you drive a hemp car? Let us know in the comments!

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