Refill Madness

Hemp-Powered Car Rolls Its Own Fuel

While high-powered lobbyists clashed, seduced, and debated their way to a House energy bill last Wednesday that called for drilling Arctic preserves and left renewable fuel by the wayside, the dialogue at the helm of one alternative-fuel program went something like this:

"Where are we parking? I don't see any place to park."

"I dunno. Where are you looking?"

Hemp Across America: The Hemp Car crew
All photos from
Hemp Across America: The Hemp Car crew

"Are we parking here?"

Such was the chatter inside the confusedly circling Hemp Car, a 1983 Mercedes station wagon powered by oil squeezed from cannabis seeds and converted into biodiesel, a cleaner vegetable substitute for the petroleum product. Its passengers were activists from Virginia on a U.S. tour, who eventually pulled up and parked on a sidewalk for a pit stop in Minneapolis. The situation in Bush's Washington is much the same: If you're looking for far-out energy resources that blow smoke in the face of Big Oil, you have to roll your own opportunities. Though the Hemp Car is trundling across the wilds of America, D.C. is never far out of mind—that's where the tour began on July 4 and will conclude at the start of October.

"We're promoting biomass for fuel instead of drilling in the Arctic or taking a new look at nuclear power," explains Hemp Car spokesperson Scott Fur. The adventure began with Grayson and Kellie Sigler, the eco-activist couple at the heart of the Hemp Car effort, who were itching to take a cross-country trip without choking the scenery. Research led them to industrial hemp. That's right, the industrial stuff—you won't get a buzz from tailgating the Hemp Car. Not that the crew would mind.

"We see nothing wrong with responsible people using marijuana. We're frankly sick of nonviolent drug offenders being thrown in jail," Fur fumes.

But mixing those issues may prove a bit too combustible for biofuel allies on Capitol Hill. Just ask South Dakota senator Tim Johnson, who introduced a bill to his chamber's energy committee in July requiring that renewables like biodiesel and ethanol, an alcohol additive made from cellulose, compose 2 percent of transportation fuel by 2008 and 5 percent by 2016. Johnson is girding for a fight with hardline conservatives in the pocket of Big Oil. "I would guess," notes spokesperson Bob Martin dryly, "that industrial hemp would be a little harder to sell than biodiesel based on soybeans."

If hemp is too taboo for Washington, there have been enough other demonstration vehicles to stage a Cannonball Run. Best known among them are the Veggie Van, the Grease Car, and Greasy Gretta the Volkswagen Jetta. They can all trace their ancestry to the diesel engine showcased at the 1900 World's Fair, which ran on straight peanut oil. Today's Grease Car also runs on pure vegetable oil and used grease, but needs to be warmed first by burning diesel—coventional or bio. And it broke down on the return leg of its tour. Justin Carven, the 24-year-old who invented it as a college project, now sells conversion kits for $795.

Oddly enough, for the pilots of the Hemp Car, one of the bedrock rules is abstinence. "In the car we're trying to keep everything by the book, everything above board, so nothing bad happens," Fur says. He figures a station wagon emblazoned "This Car Powered by Hemp" and "Make It Hempen" is already a traveling KICK ME sign. Even industrial hemp, with THC levels so low you'd have to smoke a doobie the size of a telephone pole to get high, is illegal to grow (but not use in finished form) in America. It doesn't help that most Canadian farmers who started growing hemp plants—whose fiber can also produce paper and cloth and strengthen plastics—in a federal experiment in 1998 have already abandoned it. Officials there say processing it was uneconomical and teenagers raided fields to sell the drug-free clippings, misrepresented as kind bud to naive classmates. The Hemp Car gets most of its stash from China; it's processed by Apple Energy in Virginia and shipped to points along the route.

So far, so good with American authorities, Fur reports. "Actually, our only experience was positive," he says. "When we pulled into Detroit from Canada, the border cops said, 'You know, there's no way we can let you in with a car like that without being searched.' And so they took us into this room and through the window we could see the dog just laying there with his head on his paws and all the border cops stood around the car and got their pictures taken with it. Their only questions were like, 'How is the tour going?' and 'How many miles per gallon do you get?'

"They know the difference between marijuana and hemp," adds Fur, whose uncle is a New York City cop. But that doesn't spare the crew some ribbing. "One of the most frequent questions I get is, if we leave a trail of nachos behind us."

Free from the typical belching of a car on fossil fuels, biodiesel engines put out a fragrance likened to French fries or doughnuts. More importantly, the Hemp Car and its kin deliver an immediate 80 percent cut in emissions of the "greenhouse gas" carbon dioxide, advocates of farmed fuel say, a small amount the next crop of plants-for-fuel readily absorbs to grow. In theory, it's a closed loop of renewable energy low on smog-causing pollutants and free of sulfur and hydrocarbons. Biodiesel doesn't yet cut back on nitric oxides, or NOx, but the emerging generation of technology promises to mop that up.

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