The University of Louisville will join seven other Kentucky universities that will study industrial hemp, with the U of L focusing specifically on hemp’s capacity as a renewable biofuel.
University of Louisville’s Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research recently announced that it would be studying whether industrial hemp could serve as a renewable alternative to fossil fuels.
Grown all over the world, industrial hemp is a non-psychoactive member of the Cannabis sativa L plant species. The plant’s long, dense fibers and woody core are used to produce food, oil, textiles, paper, building supplies, plastics, and biofuel. Hemp is easier to grow compared to other plants, without requiring lots of fertilizers or water. Plus, it leaves the ground in a better state when it is harvested.
“Hemp is cleaner and cheaper to produce than coal, oil or other resources,” said Mahendra Sunkara, professor of chemical engineering and director of the Conn Center. “It could solve many of the nation’s future energy needs while providing a new, lucrative cash crop for Kentucky’s farmers.”
In the United States, hemp is only legal to cultivate in collaboration with state departments of agriculture and in states that have passed hemp-related legislature. While hemp farming is illegal federally, President Obama signed the 2014 Farm Bill, which allows universities and departments of agriculture to grow hemp for limited purposes, including academic research.
The study will be conducted by three researchers from the University of Louisville, including Conn Center biofuels team leader Jagannadh Satyavolu, assistant professor of chemical engineering Noppadon Sathitsuksanoh, and associate professor of chemical engineering Eric Berson.
The research will be done in partnership with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and the University of Kentucky Agriculture Department. Seven other Kentucky universities are currently conducting research on industrial hemp, but the University of Louisville is the only one in the state to examine its possibility as a renewable fuel resource.
Years ago, researchers at the University of Connecticut found that hemp biodiesel, produced from hemp seeds, showed a 97 percent conversion efficiency and successfully passed all the laboratory’s tests. The hemp biofuel also showed it could be used at lower temperatures than any other biodiesel on the market.
“If someone is already growing hemp,” head researcher and UCONN professor Richard Parnas said at the time, “they might be able to produce enough fuel to power their whole farm with the oil from the seeds they produce.”
Over the years, as the realities of climate change have become better acknowledged, various efforts have been made to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. In an editorial for The Guardian, Giulio Sica made the argument that using hemp to produce biofuel could be the solution we need.
“[Hemp] has been successfully used for many years to create bioethanol and biodiesel, is environmentally friendlier to produce than sugar beet, palm oil, corn or any of the crops mentioned in the report and can grow in practically any temperate to hot climate leaving the ground in better condition than when it was planted,” Sica wrote.
The University of Louisville will cultivate industrial hemp on a 40-by-40 farm plot located near The Phoenix House on its Belknap Campus. Researchers planted their first hemp plot last month, despite it not being the normal time of the year for planting. The university is hoping to get an early look at germination and also see how the local public will react.
“We want to eliminate the stigma that is attached to hemp,” Conn Center assistant director Andrew Marsh said in a release. “When people learn the characteristics of the crop and understand its potential for economic development, we think they will become advocates for its production.”
The Conn Center has published photos of its hemp planting, which you can view here.