“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
Former Dell executive Bruce Michael Dietzen caught the attention of the automotive industry in 2017 when he introduced the hemp-bodied Renew Sports Car. While engines adapted to run off of plant-based biofuel had been popular alternatives to petroleum for decades, the Renew’s hemp body was unique.
Henry Ford Build the Original Hemp Prototype
Automotive pioneer Henry Ford inspired Dietzen’s creation. In 1941 Ford introduced a prototype hemp sedan, which has since become a bit of a legend, with bloggers claiming it was a fully hemp vehicle with a hemp-fueled engine. The truth is only a small part of the car contained hemp, and his prototype used an ethanol engine. Ford fabricated the body out of plant-derived plastic, 300 pounds lighter than comparable models built of steel and boasting ten times greater impact resistance.
The New York Times reported in an August 14, 1941 article that Ford chemists created the plastic from 70% cellulose fiber and 30% resin binder. The cellulose consisted of 50% southern slash pine, 30% straw, 10% hemp, and 10% ramie–a material used by ancient Egyptians to encase mummies. The fenders were a blend of corn, wheat, and soy.
Ford believed his plant-based plastics would find a place in many industries throughout the country, telling Popular Science Monthly:
“It will be a car of darn sight better design in every form. And don’t forget the motor car business is just one of the industries that can find new uses for plastics, made from what’s grown in the land!”
He loved the concept of renewable resources and had always incorporated those principles into the construction of his cars. The entrepreneur was both an environmentalist and an agriculturalist in a time before large scale farming operations contributed to environmental destruction. He even had hemp fields on his property.
Ethanol Lost Favor in America at the Same Time As Hemp
The original 1908 Ford Model T featured an ethanol engine. In the early days of combustion engines, ethanol models were more common than petroleum gas for several reasons. Fossil fuel pipelines are needed for distribution from “area found” to “area needed.” Ethanol, on the other hand, is simple to produce locally throughout the country from fermenting nearly any plant matter. Whereas gasoline requires its own supply chain, ethanol production complemented other industries that created ethanol-ready plant byproducts in their production processes.
Petroleum’s lower octane rating than ethanol is more toxic (especially when blended with tetra-ethyl lead to enhance octane), and contains more air pollutants. Raw petroleum chemical composition varies, making refinement more complicated. Petrol is more likely to explode and burn accidentally. In the combustion chambers of gasoline engines, gum forms on storage surfaces and carbon deposits accumulate.
Ethanol engines don’t have these issues, but for decades we’ve heard little about the fermented fuel. Why? Well, ethanol engines were just as common as gasoline until prohibition laws began taxing the industrial alcohol as liquor to help fund the civil war. Fossil fuel companies gained a firm footing during that time and pushed the automotive industry towards their petrol motors through lobbying.
In the time since the production of Ford’s hemp prototype was cut short, we have faced climate change, diminishing resources, and the “War on Drugs” as true threats to society. Today, measures like curbing greenhouse emissions, legalizing cannabis, and embracing solar technologies cultivated a better atmosphere for Ford’s vision to resurface. Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors paved the way for big and small car manufacturers to think green by proving a significant market exists for eco-friendly automobiles.
A Carbon Neutral Car Led Bruce Dietzen to Hemp
So with great optimism, Bruce Dietzen wanted to build the world’s first zero-carbon passenger vehicle. The manufacturing process used to construct his Renew Sports Car is “carbon neutral,” meaning it doesn’t tax the atmosphere with any extra gasses. The average vehicle requires emissions of about ten tons of carbon dioxide into the environment during production. As if that wasn’t enough, they release an additional six tons of carbon dioxide each year on the road.
The carbon footprint conundrum led Dietzen to the durable cannabis variety. Hemp removes carbon from the atmosphere very effectively, perhaps more so than much larger trees. Hemp matures in 3 to 4 months, and depending upon climate, can be replanted several times a year. Trees take about 20 years to grow into an equivalent carbon dioxide processor.
Hemp fiber’s exceptional strength comes from storing all of this carbon as it grows. When used to manufacture a durable good like the Renew Sports Car, the process is called carbon sequestering. The approach may be one of the most effective ways to combat climate change and make a fundamental shift in how we tax the environment to create our American necessities.
The Renew Sports Car is Stronger and Lighter than Conventional Autos
The Renew doesn’t make concessions on durability or performance. Because hemp is lighter than steel, the car is more efficient to run. Hemp is also as stiff as carbon fiber, a material popular for lightening sports cars. Bruce Dietzen’s creation is even biodegradable. When the life cycle of the vehicle has come to an end, it doesn’t have to wind up in a scrapyard.
In 2016 as Bruce was building the Renew, hemp cultivation was federally illegal. “I live in Florida. Hemp [was] still illegal to grow, so I had to import the woven material all the way from China because we still [didn’t] have the facilities that can make hemp fabrics,” he said.
Upon completion in 2017, tightly woven cannabis leaves made the car’s body ten times stronger than steel, just like Henry Ford’s prototype and lighter than fiberglass. On “Jay Leno’s Garage” television program Leno put the body to the test by banging on the hood over and over without damaging the Renew’s bodywork.
The car isn’t for everyone. Based on a Mazda Miata frame, each one costs about $200,000, but they are a sign of things to come. All new technologies come down in price as they become more available. Carbon-neutral autos will be no different, and the efficiency of Dietzen’s Renew Sports Car signals to automakers that there is room for innovation outside of electric motors.
Hemp’s ability to outperform synthetic materials is also a sign that Henry Ford had the right idea. We should look to annual harvests from mother nature for renewable resources and our engineering. Making smart choices at both an agricultural and legislative level is paramount in our modern struggle with climate change. Utilizing hemp as food, medicine, textiles, and even autobodies are ways we can make a global change.
Jacobs, Caleb. “This Sports Car Is Made With 100 Pounds of Cannabis.” The Drive, 20 July 2017, www.thedrive.com/sheetmetal/12712/the-renew-sports-car-is-made-with-100-pounds-of-cannabis.
Steinbuch, Yaron. “This Car Is Made out of Cannabis Hemp.” New York Post, New York Post, 6 May 2016, nypost.com/2016/05/06/this-car-is-made-out-of-cannabis-hemp/.
YoniBlum. “Jay Leno Drives a Car Made out of Cannabis.” CNBC, CNBC, 19 July 2017, www.cnbc.com/2017/07/19/jay-leno-drives-a-cannabis-car.html.