UCLA Is Working on a Cannabis Breathalyzer That Uses "THC-Powered" Fuel Cells
Could we be seeing a weed-powered car in the future?
Published on October 6, 2022

Scientists at UCLA are hard at work on the development of a breathalyzer that could detect the presence of THC in a person’s system. The tool, which may not be ready for the commercial market for a number of years, is being positioned as a solution to blood and urine tests meant to detect the cannabinoid—systems that, due to their inexactitude regarding time of consumption, put regular cannabis consumers in danger of legal prosecution even if they weren’t high when they sat behind the wheel.

The device relies on oxidizing the THC, which in turn builds an electric current that can give information about how much of the cannabinoid is present. The technology, which is being worked on by UCLA start-up ElectraTect, is built on the researcher’s 2020 finding of the THC molecule’s color-changing behavior after hydrogen molecules are removed. That dependency on loss of hydrogen makes the THC breathalyzer operate in a similar fashion to the devices used to detect alcohol blood percentages.

There's been a lot of outrage over stoned drivers, but some studies put the true risks of stoned driving into doubt. In 2020, a Canadian investigation found little evidence to suggest that the presence of THC in an individual’s system impaired their decision-making ability in various simulated challenging driving situations.

“The biological tests are not useful for identifying people that represent a safety risk,” said study author Scott Macdonald to Global News at the time. “What we’re left with is behavioral symptoms. We’re still working on developing tests to assess whether an individual who consumes cannabis is a safety risk. It’s hard to do.”

A 2021 University of Colorado study similarly found that regular cannabis users drive as well as those who do not consume. The next year, the same educational institution found that weed consumers who smoke a lot were better at driving than those who just occasionally toke.

Other studies suggest that driving under the influence of marijuana is akin to operating a car with a blood alcohol limit of 0.02 to 0.05 — which is under the current legal threshold in the United States. That team of Australian researchers also found that opioids and benzos are much more likely to cause car accidents, and that people who had consumed cannabis only drove slightly worse than sober folk.

“The application of presence-based offenses to medicinal cannabis patients appears to derive from the historical status of cannabis as a prohibited drug with no legitimate medical application,” those investigators concluded in their 2021 paper.

But leaving aside the amount of peril that stoners pose to roadways, the UCLA team’s discoveries also include tantalizing hints at a new source of electrical power. Their work in THC-powered fuel cells suggest that the oxidization of THC into THCQ could create an electric current, which gets stronger when the THC concentration is raised.

Given the amount of power that cannabis grow rooms currently consume, the idea of weed being used to create power is surely one that merits a follow-up. The real question there is if the benefits outweigh the inputs.

Follow Caitlin on Instagram, and catch her Spanish-language podcast Crónica on Spotify and Mixcloud. 

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Caitlin Donohue
Caitlin Donohue is a Bay Area-raised, Mexico City-based cannabis writer and author of She Represents: 44 Women Who Are Changing Politics and the World. Her weekly show Crónica on Radio Nopal explores Mexican marijuana culture and politics in the prohibition era. Follow Caitlin on IG @byrdwatch.
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