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Irish have high hopes for cannabis,
fuel of the future

by Audrey Magee, Ireland Correspondent

Cannabis will light up thousands of Irish homes by replacing Irish peat as a vital fuel to generate electricity.  A fast-growing strain is said to be a perfect new crop for European farmers.

Scientists in Carlow, southwest of Dublin, have been growing cannabis in a secret area for the past four years, testing its properties as an energy source to burn in power stations.  James Burke, who has grown three acres under licence from the Department of Justice, said that the plant flourished in Irish conditions, growing up to a height of 14ft.

It is a strain developed in France for agricultural use.  Called Cannabis sativa L, also known as hemp, it is essentially the same plant smoked by drug users, but modern science has removed the narcotic element. [sic]

"There is no possibility of everyone getting stoned from the fumes of a power station because the cannabis has no chemical constituent," said Dr. Burke, who works at Teagasc, the agriculture and food development authority part-funded by the Government.

"Despite the name, it bears no resemblance to the other plant.  You would have to smoke five or six acres of the stuff to get a high."

The plant has a slightly minty smell.  Stringy fibres inside the stem burn as well as wood and yield similar energy levels, but the cannabis is easier and faster to grow than wood and dries out more quickly.  A typical growing season lasts six months, from April to September.

The fibres can also be used to make fine paper, canvas shoes or car bumpers.  Ireland intends to be the first country to use it to generate electricity.

The Government is holding an international competition to find the best design for a biomass power plant, which would burn cannabis, waste paper and chicken droppings.  The plant could be in operation by 1999, generating electricity for more than 30,000 homes 1 per cent of Ireland's total energy needs.

Dr. Burke said that Cannabis sativa would be a perfect alternative crop for farmers curtailed from producing more food for the European Union.  At 3190 an acre, it is 350 cheaper to produce than wheat or barley.  Ireland's planned use of cannabis is a far cry from the staple fuel of bog peat which has warmed Irish houses for generations.  But the bog is running out.  There are 1.2 million hectares of bog in Ireland, 8 per cent of them owned by Bord na Mona, the national peat cultivator.  Peat accounts for 12 per cent of the fuel used to generate electricity, fourth to coal, gas and oil.  Bord na Mona says it has sufficient resources for another 30 years, after which its contribution to the national grid would dwindle.

Humans have been using hemp to make ropes and baskets for at least 6,000 years.  The plant is widely grown in India and throughout Eastern Europe.  Its main use is as a source of fibre used for twine, rope and string, and for coarse sacking and canvas.

The plant, an annual grown from seed, can grow up to a height of 16ft.  In dense cultivation it usually reaches between 7ft and 10ft.  The seeds are a source of oil used to make paints, varnishes, soaps and, more commonly, birdseed.  The narcotic chemicals are usually found in the leaves and blossoms.

Article provided by Dave West
Date: Tue, 20 Aug 1996

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This page last updated on 16 April 1999.