The humble agave plant is known primarily for its use in tequila production, but a research team from the University of Sydney has just added two more highly relevant applications: biofuel and hand sanitizer.
Published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, the researchers evaluated the environmental impact of ethanol produced from agave and concluded that the plant outperformed corn and sugarcane in several environmental impacts. Specifically, the study establishes that the ethanol yields of agave are similar to those of Brazilian sugar cane, while consuming 46% less water than corn and even 69% less than sugar cane, in addition to showing fewer other water-related impacts.
These results offer many new opportunities in agriculture and the biofuel industry. After all, the plant is known for its high sugar content and grows in semi-arid areas of the world, specifically in the deserts of Mexico and Australia. Consequently, the study results mean that deserts could become effective farmland for the agave plant, potentially spawning an entirely new industry.
“Although its impact on land use, measured by land occupied per unit of ethanol production, is 98 percent higher than corn and 2 percent higher than sugarcane, agave can be grown on land arid that are not suitable for food crops ”, estimate the researchers. Being a succulent native to warm climates, the plant does not need to be irrigated or fertilized and therefore does not put additional pressures on these resources.
“It can grow in semi-arid areas without irrigation; and it does not compete with food crops or require a limited supply of water and fertilizers. Agave is tolerant to heat and drought and can survive the hot summers of Australia. "
However, the analysis suggests that one obstacle is the economy. Against the backdrop of the recent oil price collapse, the researchers warn that an agave-produced ethanol-based industry is currently not commercially viable and would need government support to get off the ground.
However, the current coronavirus crisis may provide the urgently needed boost: Since ethanol is also a main ingredient in hand sanitizers, the production of which is increasingly under pressure as manufacturers cannot meet the Covid-19 induced peak demand. Agave could now become a viable industry quickly as demand for its derived products increases.
These developments could make the agave plant an ecological solution to many of today's pressing problems. Done right, agave could very well be the much sought-after supplier of biofuels and disinfectants in the future.