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Biofuels and Tequila: Agave May Make a Suitable Ethanol Crop

Grab the lime and salt!  Tequila may soon offer more than just delicious frozen margaritas.  Researchers find that the agave plant, used to distill the famous Mexican spirit, may also serve as a biofuel crop to produce ethanol.

"Agave has a huge advantage, as it can grow in marginal or desert land, not on arable land," and therefore would not displace food crops, says Oliver Inderwildi, at the University of Oxford.

The majority of ethanol produced in the world is still derived from food crops such as corn and sugarcane.  Speculators have argued for years now that using such crops for fuel can drive up the price of food.

Agave, however, can grow on hot dry land with a high-yield and low environmental impact.  The researchers proposing the plant’s use have modeled a facility in Jalisco, Mexico, which converts the high sugar content of the plant into ethanol.

The research, published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, provides the first ever life-cycle analysis of the energy and greenhouse gas balance of producing ethanol with agave.  Each megajoule of energy produced from the agave-to-ethanol process resulted in a net emission of 35 grams of carbon dioxide, far below the 85g/MJ estimated for corn ethanol production.  Burning gasoline produces roughly 100g/MJ.

"The characteristics of the agave suit it well to bioenergy production, but also reveal its potential as a crop that is adaptable to future climate change,” adds University of Oxford plant scientist Andrew Smith.  “In a world where arable land and water resources are increasingly scarce, these are key attributes in the food versus fuel argument, which is likely to intensify given the expected large-scale growth in biofuel production."

Agave biofuel trials are taking place in deserts around the world, particularly in Australia—a leader in advanced biofuel research.  Researchers claim that abandoned agave plantations in Mexico and Africa could be revitalized and converted to biofuel operations.

By. John Shimkus of Energy Digital


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  • erich on January 25 2012 said:
    Agave Border Initiative (ABC),
    Arturo Velez sent his Agave-Derived Biofuels creation of a Bi-National Border Consortium to foster large-scale use of agave as energy crop.
    His steering committee; Dr. Soll Sussman, Coordinator of the Border Energy Forum, as well as the National Coordinators of the Bor­der 2012 Binational Environmental Program, Dr. Steve Kaffka, Director of the California Biomass Collaborative and Dr. Matthew A. Jenks, Coordinator for the Western Regional USDA-ARS Biomass Research Center, US Arid Land Agricultural Research Center, USDA.
    Government agencies, private initiative, farmers/ranchers/foresters associations, academia/researchers, NGO and entrepreneurs are welcome to participate.
    The Western US States produce only ~0.3% of the total USA biomass production, but by planting 25 million hectares of agave on marginal dryland, these States could produce 1.6+ Billion tonnes of dry biomass every year, the same amount the whole US currently produces.
    In Mexico he is working with CONOSIL, with six hundred and seventy thousand members. They own at least 40 million hectares of land. They are VERY interested in the Agave Project. Especially the States with more semiarid and arid land (upper half of Mexico).
    CONOSIL is a member of the International Family Forestry Alliance.
    CONOSIL: http://www.conosil.org.mx/ ,Arturo is the National Administrative Coordinator.
  • Dr.A.Jagadeesh on April 10 2012 said:
    Yes. Agave is a care-free growth plant which can be potential base for Biofuel.

    Agave(Americana),Sisal Agave is a multiple use plant which has 10% fermentable sugars and rich in cellulose. The fibre is used in rope making and also for weaving clothes in Philippines under the trade name DIP-DRY. In Brazil a paper factory runs on sisal as input. A Steroid HECOGENIN is extracted from this plant leaves. Since on putrification,it produces methane gas, it can be cut and used as input in biogas plants. Also in Kenya and Lesotho dried pieces of Agave are mixed with concrete since it has fibres which act as binding.

    Here is an excellent analysis on Agave as a biofuel:

    Agave shows potential as biofuel feedstock, Checkbiotech, By Anna Austin, February 11, 2010:

    "Mounting interest in agave as a biofuel feedstock could jump-start the Mexican biofuels industry, according to agave expert Arturo Valez Jimenez.

    Agave thrives in Mexico and is traditionally used to produce liquors such as tequila. It has a rosette of thick fleshy leaves, each of which usually end in a sharp point with a spiny margin. Commonly mistaken for cacti, the agave plant is actually closely related to the lily and amaryllis families. The plants use water and soil more efficiently than any other plant or tree in the world, Arturo said. "This is a scientific fact—they don't require watering or fertilizing and they can absorb carbon dioxide during the night," he said. The plants annually produce up to 500 metric tons of biomass per hectare, he added.

    Agave fibers contain 65 percent to 78 percent cellulose, according to Jimenez. "With new technology, it is possible to breakdown over 90 percent of the cellulose and hemicellulose structures, which will increase ethanol and other liquid biofuels from lignocellulosic biomass drastically," he said. "Mascoma is assessing such technology."

    Another plant of great use is OPUNTIA for biogas production.

    In the fields where Jatropha is being grown,Agave and Opuntia can be grown as Intercropping.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
    E-mail: anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com
  • Dr.A.Jagadeesh on April 22 2012 said:
    Very good article on Biofuel from Agave.

    The main drawback for wider application of Biofuels is input. There was a big movement for biofuel from Jatropha in India but in reality not much has been achieved. Agave (Americana), Sisal Agave is a multiple use plant which has 10% fermentable sugars and rich in cellulose. The fibre is used in rope making and also for weaving clothes in Philippines under the trade name DIP-DRY. In Brazil a paper factory runs on sisal as input. A Steroid HECOGENIN is extracted from this plant leaves. Since on putrification,it produces methane gas, it can be cut and used as input in biogas plants. Also in Kenya and Lesotho dried pieces of Agave are mixed with concrete since it has fibres which act as binding.

    At present, approximately 68.35 million hectare area of the land is lying as wastelands in India. Agave and Opuntia can be grown in these lands which will transform the rural economy. Mexico is leader in Biofuel from Agave and Biogas from Opuntia.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
    E-mail: anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com
  • Dean George on June 11 2012 said:
    I am starting an agave farm in Nevada. I have already had interest from an oil company in TX, and an ethanol refinery in AZ. We are using a way to increase the output of the Agave without destroying it.

    I am very excited with our progress.

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