Securing India’s Energy Independence Beyond Fossil Fuels and Mineral Resources

The Cannabis plant, known to Indian laws, and the Constitution as ‘hemp’ since 1894, has had a love-hate relationship with the Indian subcontinent. Upanishads and Vedic texts make a reference to elixir ‘soma’ or nectar of gods that according to some was either made from the hemp plants itself, or had ‘bhanga’ or cannabis as one of its main ingredients.  This is evident in the following excerpts from Book 11, Hymn 6, Verse 15 of Atharva Veda-Samhita;

पञ्च राज्यानि वीरुधां सोमश्रेष्ठानि ब्रूमः। दर्भो भङ्गो यवः सह ते नो मुञ्चन्त्व् अंहसः॥

The ethno-botanical implications of hemp could be traced to the prehistoric era.  Evidence suggests that one of the oldest existing human relics, according to the Columbia History of the World, is a piece of hemp fabric dated about 10,000 years old. Hemp also exhibits the ability for producing biofuels and bio-composites that are superior to the conventional forest and mineral resources while leaving a comparatively much smaller environmental footprint. However, the potentials and abilities of this plant are currently being denigrated as a result of the prejudiced notions of socio-cultural evolution in the 20th century

We argue that India’s strategic defense requirements and geo-political realities indicate an urgent need to take decisive steps in the direction of securing maximum energy independence.  To that extent the capability of cannabis to potentially become a reliable resource that could guarantee supply of cost-efficient and environmentally friendly energy sources needs to be urgently highlighted. The current criminal prohibition of ‘cannabis,’ or hemp as defined in the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 (‘NDPS Act’) is one of the most serious impediments in the path to realize this potential.

Surprisingly, ethyl alcohol that has enjoyed quite a reputation as a social lubricant throughout history also has a history of being used as an effective combustible fuel. Nicolaus Otto, the famous German engineer had experimented with ethanol while developing the world’s first compressed charge four-stroke engine.

Anhydrous ethanol can be effectively blended with petrol to meet the desired levels of performance and to reduce air pollution as well as dependence on fossil fuels. In 2014, Koenigsegg launched a hypercar named ‘One:1’ which acquired its specific name due to its unique power-to-weight configurations.  

This car, capable of delivering a whopping 1341 bhp (or 1MW) and 1000 Nm when fueled with E85, weighs only about 1341 Kilograms.  It holds the Guinness world record for its 0-300-0 km/h run within an astonishing 21.19 seconds.  It has been designed as a flex-fuel vehicle and was able to achieve this feat by using ethanol-blended fuel mixtures quite popular in Sweden.

In 2020, Koenigsegg launched a four-seater mega-car called ‘Gemera’.  This 1700 bhp (or 1.27 MW) hypercar is also designed as a flex-fuel vehicle capable of running on different fuels including ethanol, methanol, and vulcanol alongside its electric powertrain. If ethanol, or ethanol blends could power these high-performance machines, it could definitely meet the fuelling needs of regular petrol engines as well.  

Electric Vehicles, even though conceptually a bright idea, often fail to reach its full potential because of the environmental and human rights issues that arise with extensive lithium or cobalt mining as well as the contamination associated with the use of cheap lead-acid batteries.

Thus, the scope of ethanol as a viable fuel alternative seems promising in India. A major hurdle in the development of biomass based fuels like ethanol remains the identification of biomass resources that have reasonable growth figures and versatility in fuel production.  ‘Cannabis,’ or hemp as defined under the NDPS Act, is such a biomass resource but its unlocked potential cannot be currently tapped on account of its criminal prohibition.

It should be noted here that a study by a team of Swedish researchers found that; hemp when considered as an energy crop for ethanol production has exhibited appreciable competency in terms of energy yield, environmental sustainability, and conversion efficiency. It provided better annual biomass yield when compared with other annual crops like wheat, maize, and sugar-beet. Moreover, hemp has evinced superiority in areas like weed suppression, phytoremediation, pest, and microbial tolerance; making it a suitable candidate for crop rotation, and sustainable farming.  

Some studies even observed that the combined production of ethanol and methane derived better outcomes than individual production techniques.  This was often due to the presence of yeast and enzymes present in the residue from ethanol production which sufficed effective conversion into methane.  This suggests that the leftovers of ethanol produced from hemp could be further utilized for producing methane which could fulfill our cooking and heating needs as well. This in turn adds value to the usability of cannabis that already has a plethora of other applications such as food, clothing, ropes, paper, body-care products, medicines and animal feed, etc. amongst others.

Hemp also exhibited the potential for developing bio-composites and construction materials. The development of bio-composites could benefit in a number of focus areas including industrial applications, construction, household, and everyday utility items.  Besides, hemp-based bio-composites could even replace the use of sheet metal in the automotive industry; as evident from hemp composite body panels used in the supercar Eco Elise by Lotus Cars Limited, as well as Eco-Cycle developed by Canadian Composites Innovation Centre.

This could offer serious environmental benefits as the prolonged mining activities required for extracting metals and mineral resources have already inflicted irreversible damage to the ecosystem. Studies have also noted that the natural fibers and resin systems exhibited close competence in properties when compared with synthetic composites, while mitigating the environmental harm of conventional plastics and composites. 

Similar studies are also present in areas like the development of hemp-based construction materials such as tiles, panels, hemp-crete, insulation, varnish, and paint, etc. amongst others. In the 248th meeting of the American Chemical Society, Dr. David Mitlin and his team presented their findings on the potential of hemp fibers as a suitable biomass resource for synthesizing graphene nanosheets; that are often revered as a miracle particle useful in high-performance battery, semiconductor and super-capacitor production. There are even studies suggesting that graphene is expected to play a huge role in enhancing efficiency and sustainability of electric powertrains

The potential of hemp as a biomass resource for graphene production is expected to mitigate the issues associated with its high-cost due to the lack of availability of suitable raw materials. Thus, hemp is a highly versatile fiber crop and could be leveraged to produce fiber-based products ranging from everyday utility items to sophisticated aerospace-grade composites.  

It will thus be seen that the statutory criminal prohibition of the cannabis or hemp plant via the NDPS Act, 1985 has now become a liability.  It remains to be argued whether the criminal prohibition of cannabis was a good idea in the first place, but whatever the benefits might have been, the current day realities clearly indicate the need to revisit our approach to the cannabis plant. 

Cannabis promises numerous options for farmer empowerment, physiological, as well as psychological wellness, job creation, reducing judicial pendency rates, defense research, industrial growth, sustainable development, food security, economic growth, harm reduction, environmental protection, and renewable energy as well as numerous other areas that are yet to be explored or deemed possible. 

It should be noted that the authors do not advocate a repeal of the NDPS Act and the connected state machinery; as such an extreme approach is not needed to deal with the cannabis question. We advocate for a surgical approach whereby cannabis is removed from the NDPS Act that would restore cannabis to its former legal status. 

In short, we argue that securing its energy independence is strategically and geo-politically extremely important for India.  Nature itself, by way of the cannabis plant could offer a lot of reliable assistance in the process. But all this natural potential that is readily at our disposal can’t be tapped because of the current criminal prohibition on the cannabis plant under the NDPS Act. One of the negative externalities of the NDPS Act’s criminal prohibition of cannabis is the inability of willing and able Indian researchers to study the plant in order to figure out all the ways in which its power can be harnessed to serve us humans and our nation.  

Mere decriminalization of the cannabis plant can be a huge step forward in this direction, and this can be achieved by simply amending the NDPS Act and removing cannabis from its scope. The removal of cannabis from the NDPS Act would put an end to the floccinaucinihilipilification of this majestic plant species that has an abundance of socio-economic and environmental benefits that could change the minds of even its worst critics. The question of cannabis decriminalization involves a lot of connected questions.  The question of India’s energy independence is also one of these questions, and it must be discussed with the seriousness that it deserves.

 

This article was co-authored by Akhil Sunny. Akhil is a Cannabis Consultant and Researcher with a specialization in Energy Systems Analysis & Design.

Dr. Khagesh Gautam
Dr. Khagesh Gautam
Gautam is a lawyer, law professor, and the award-winning author of Cannabis Indica: Perception v. Potential (OakBridge, 2022)

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