Agave plants are native to the American continent and are known for being the main ingredient of tequila. A recent study suggests that the agave plant could be the next big thing in the bioenergy sector. In addition to the production of biofuel, agave can also replenish the unprecedented demand for hand sanitizers.
Scientists have demonstrated the importance and interrelationship natural environment and resources (water, food, energy), along with its management and conservation. The scientific term used to define this inter-relationship is called water-energy-food-environment (WEFE) nexus. Studying the connection among environment, water, food, and energy security is critical for human welfare, poverty reduction and sustainable development. Growing population, urbanization, fossil fuel use, climate change, and international trade are among the few things threatening the WEFE nexus.
Recent research published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, shows the potential for Agave plants in environmental management and sustainability, including transitioning from fossil fuel to renewable/clean energy. Agave plant species are found in hot and arid regions of North and South America. Agave plant is famously known for being a base ingredient in the Tequila production and is a popular white sugar alternative in the form of agave syrup. Native Americans consumed these plants as a source of food and also as medicine due to its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties.
Potential of Agave plant in the dry Australian continent
Australia has the largest proportion of semi-arid land in the world, which is why common agricultural crops do not grow in this region. Only plants that survive in dry regions like agave are suitable for growth in the country. A pilot-scale experiment in Queensland, Australia was conducted by the team led by Dr. Yan Xiaoyu from the University of Exeter, to test the potential of agave. The main objective of the study was to conduct life cycle assessment and economic analysis of ethanol produced from agave grown in Australia in comparison with Brazilian sugarcane and US corn-based ethanol.
“Agave could be used in Australia as an environmentally friendly solution to the country’s transport fuel shortage along with the production of hand sanitizer, which is in high demand during the coronavirus pandemic,” said the lead author Dr. Xiaoyu.
“Agave can grow in semi-arid regions without irrigation, it does not compete with food crops and doesn’t threaten limited water and fertilizer supplies,” said Associate Professor Daniel Tan a co-author of the study. Agave is heat and drought tolerant and can survive Australia’s hot summers. According to Dr. Daniel and his team, “the experiments proved that bioethanol extracted from the agave plant is superior to that from corn and sugarcane in terms of biofuel output and environmental friendliness.”
The experiments showed that bioethanol yield of 7414 liters per hectare (L/ha/year) annually was achievable with 5-year-old agave plants when compared to 9900 L/ha/year and 3700 L/ha/year for Brazilian sugarcane and US corn respectively. Additionally, agave outperformed current first-generation biofuel crops in water-related environmental impacts, including; freshwater eutrophication (88% lower than sugarcane and 96% lower than corn). Marine toxicology (59% lower than corn and 53% lower than sugarcane), water consumption (69% lower than sugarcane and 46% lower than corn), and fossil resource scarcity (58% lower than corn). Globally warming impact for agave plants is also 30$ lower and 62% lower than that of sugarcane and corn respectively.
Although land-use impact for agave (measured by land occupied per unit ethanol output) is 98% higher than corn and 2% higher than sugarcane, agave can be grown on arid land that is not suitable for food crops. The economic analysis suggests that first-generation bioethanol derived from agave is not commercially viable without the support of the government. Overall, the results show that agave plant is a promising resource for the production of biofuel production in the WEFE (water-energy-food-environment) context.
‘Tequila’ powered biofuels more efficient than corn or sugar
Marcus Strom | April 2, 2020 | The University of Sydney, Australia.
Agave: A promising feedstock for biofuels in the water-energy-food-environment (WEFE) nexus
Journal of Cleaner Production