Dr Sadanand Dhekney and Dr. Jurgen Schwarz

Can industrial hemp be a reliable source of biofuel?

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Dr. Jurgen Schwarz, chairman of UMES’ Department of Agriculture, Food and Resource Sciences and Dr. Sadanand Dhekney, associate professor of plant breeding and biotechnology, are recipients of a $50,000 Energy Innovation Seed Grant awarded by the Maryland Energy Innovation Institute. 

The institute based at the University of Maryland College Park awards grants “intended to bridge the gap between … laboratory research results and prototype demonstrations while fostering commercialization through technology development, creation and/or advancement of university (supported) start-up companies” in Maryland. 

“Utilizing Industrial Hemp Biomass for High Throughput Biofuel Production in Maryland” is the focus of the Dhekney-Schwarz project, one of six funded throughout the University System of Maryland. The institute had 18 proposals submitted. 

Dhekney and Schwarz along with Dr. Daehwan Kim, a biology professor at Hood College in Frederick, Md., and Robert Kozak, president of Atlantic Biomass Conversions, have partnered with the renewable energy sector to study the potential for converting industrial hemp into bioethanol and then scaling up the process to an industrial level. 

Industrial hemp’s versatility combined with expansion of available acreage offers Maryland and the nation’s producers and processors an opportunity to maximize their returns from the crop. 

Dhekeny, a geneticist and plant breeding specialist, is also involved in a second hemp research project at UMES where he is exploring ways to cultivate high-quality, genetically defined, disease-free, locally sourced plants to sell to Maryland growers. Hemp is also a source of cannabidiol, which has medicinal applications in the treatment of chronic pain, anxiety and seizures like those associated with childhood epilepsy. 

Hemp’s biomass characteristics yield a higher conversion of fermentable sugars compared to two popular sources — switchgrass and species of Miscanthus such as Asian silver grass — a promising indication it could be a reliable source of biofuel.  Producers stand to earn additional income from growing hemp commercially from some parts of the plant that otherwise considered a waste by-product of processing. 

The thrust of UMES’ research will comprise experiments at three sites to develop prototypes, which will be scaled to an industrial level.  This approach could pave the way for processors to enhance their ability to generate value-added products. 

Developing technology that identifies hemp cultivars with high biomass production and efficient conversion into biofuel could lead to greater investment from producers, processors and the renewable energy sector, resulting in a new sector of jobs in Maryland, researchers believe.

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