Hemp & the Auto Industry

Image of HempCar Crew, retrieved from the Official Press Images on April 30th, 2013.

Marijuana's clear-headed cousin:
Industrial hemp: Fibres slowly regain favour in auto industry

By Nate Hendley
The National Post (April 27, 2001)

Grayson Sigler and his partner, Kellie Ogilvie, will be travelling across North America this summer in a 1983 Mercedes-Benz turbo diesel wagon that has been converted to run on hemp-seed oil.

Hemp is a botanical relative of marijuana, but Mr. Sigler, a self- described pianist, inventor, mechanic, farmer, publisher and eco- activist, and Ms. Ogilvie, a Web programmer, farmer, writer, and animal rights activist, are not planning a joy ride.

"The goal of the trip is to promote awareness about biological fuels and the utility of industrial hemp," the Virginia-based couple writes in an e-mail.

Their journey might sound bizarre, but it isn't.

Hemp has enjoyed a long relationship with the auto industry, a relationship many people are eager to revive.

Hemp, which is also called industrial cannabis, won't get you high. It's grown solely for non-intoxicating purposes and can be used for food, fibre and fuel.

Rudolf Diesel, the man who invented the engine that bears his name, experimented with hemp fuel, while auto pioneer Henry Ford tried to make cars out of the stuff.

Ford was an adherent of the Chemurgy movement, which sought to unite farms and factories and grow industrial products from the soil. Chemurgists believed natural crops were superior to synthetic materials and envisioned a society in which factory parts, fuels, varnishes and paints would be derived from agricultural goods.

Mr. Ford produced a prototype vehicle in 1941 with a body made from flax, hemp and other organic materials. A famous picture from the era shows Ford whacking the car with an axe to show how durable it was.

Unfortunately for Ford, his timing was bad; the prototype was produced amid mounting hysteria over marijuana and growing regulatory pressure on hemp. By the 1950s, legislators had effectively banned commercial hemp farming across North America.

A strong hemp legalization movement emerged in Canada in the 1990s, spearheaded by farmers, environmentalists, pot advocates and the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union. The CAW joined the hemp campaign because it was concerned with cancer rates among members, which it blamed, in part, on petrochemicals in the car manufacturing process.

The CAW published a tome called If You Think Hemp is a Drug, Smoke This Book and launched a petition drive to legalize the crop.

The federal Liberals were listening and, in 1998, lifted the ban on commercial hemp farming. As a result, Henry Ford's dream of creating cannabis-based cars is now a reality.

The auto sector has become "a big, big market" for hemp, says Geof Kime, president of Hempline, a Southern Ontario-based industrial cannabis processing centre.

Hemp fibres can be blended with other materials to make composites for dashboards, door panels, trunk liners and other interior parts, he explains. Such composites are cheaper and lighter than ones made with glass-based fibres, he says.

The German company Daimler was one of the first carmakers to use industrial cannabis. For the past few years, the firm has incorporated hemp material in the interiors of the Mercedes-Benz line. DaimlerChrysler said it is looking to expand the use of hemp- based components, possibly to vehicle exteriors.

Mr. Kime provides hemp fibre to suppliers for each of the Big Three U.S. car manufacturers.

Some of these companies are happy to highlight their connection with the once-controversial crop.

"The market for hemp-fibre auto composites is still in the early state," says John Roulac, president of Hemptech, a California-based consulting firm. "However, in the coming decade, we could see the need for hundreds of thousands of acres to meet the demand for the auto industry."

Hemp car, Grayson Sigler, Kellie Ogilvie