“Why use up the forests, which were centuries in the making, and the mines, which required ages to lay down, if we can get the equivalent of forest and mineral products in the annual growth of the hemp fields?” ~ Henry Ford
In 1941, Henry Ford built a car out of plastic from hemp and other plant material that ran on hemp fuel. Why aren’t we driving it today? asks Return to Now.
Ford’s 1941 bioplastic Model T was made of hemp, flax, wheat, and spruce pulp, which made the car lighter than fiberglass and ten times tougher than steel, wrote the New York Times on February 2, 1941. The car ran on ethanol made from hemp or other agricultural waste. Ford’s experimental model was deemed a step toward the realization of his dream to “grow automobiles from soil,” wrote Popular Mechanics in their December 1941 issue and reduce greenhouse gases—already known to occur by then.
Fossil Fuels and Global Warming
In 1938 Guy Callendar first showed that the Earth’s temperature was increasing due to increased CO2 (the major greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere. As early as 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius suggested that fossil fuel combustion may eventually result in enhanced global warming by proposing a relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and atmospheric temperature. Prior to this, in 1807, global ecologist Alexander Humboldt predicted human-induced climate change.
“America has consumed 80% of her known oil and gas reserves,” wrote an article in the 1950s when the greenhouse effect and acid rain was being discussed. “The use of biomass-derived fuels will reduce acid rain and reverse the greenhouse effect.”
Plants: The Fuel of the Future
In 1925, Ford told the New York Times: “The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumach out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust—almost anything. There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented. There’s enough alcohol in one year’s yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years.”
Hemp is ideal for pyrolytic conversion into chemical feedstocks, transportation fuels, electricity, and heat for industrial uses, they reported.
“The same basic thermochemical decomposition process is used to refine both biomass and fossil fuels.”
Municipal and agricultural wastes are highly suitable for this process also. They can act as supplemental resources to supply up to 10% of our energy needs. High moisture herbaceous plants—such as sugar cane and corn—are best suited for biochemical conversion into fermented alcohols, valuable as chemical feedstocks and—with bacterial digestion—can also produce methane rich biogas, an excellent boiler fuel.
Growing hemp in the United States was essentially outlawed in 1937 due to its association with its THC-containing cousin—in truth, it was outlawed through efforts by bullying lobbyists representing powerful industries such as the oil, plastics (Dupont) and paper industries.
Ford continued to grow hemp illegally for some years after the Federal ban, hoping to become independent of the petroleum industry. But, Ford ultimately found it impractical to mass-produce vehicles that relied upon a steady supply of hemp.
Recently, investor Bruce Dietzen created a prototype of Ford’s hemp car. Given that the carbon footprint of manufacturing a standard car is 10 tons, hemp can sequester enough carbon to at least render the car carbon-neutral if not carbon-negative, argues Dietzen.
The Hemp Farming Act passed on December 2018, legalized hemp production in the USA. With the act, Ford and Dietzen’s prototypes may yet help eradicate the fossil fuel-based auto industry and make transportation sustainable.
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.