Agave can be used for biofuel and hand-sanitizers, researchers say

6 April 2020

The humble agave plant is mostly known for its use in tequila production, but a research team from the University of Sidney has just added two more, highly pertinent applications: biofuel and hand-sanitizer.

Published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, the researchers assessed the environmental impact of ethanol produced from agave and concluded that the plant outperformed corn and sugarcane on several environmental impacts. Specifically, the study states that ethanol yields from agave are similar to that of Brazilian sugarcane, while consuming 46% less water than corn and even 69% less than sugarcane, next to showing less of a host of other water-related impacts.

These results offer many new opportunities in farming 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 findings of the study mean that deserts could be turned into effective farmland for the agave plant, thereby potentially spawning an entirely new industry.

“Although its Land Use impact, measured by land occupied per unit ethanol output, is 98 [percent] higher than corn and 2 [percent] higher than sugarcane, agave can be grown on arid land that is not suitable for food crops,” the researchers estimate. Being a succulent native to hot climates, the plant does not need to be irrigated or fertilized, and is therefore not putting extra pressures on these resources.

“It can grow in semi-arid areas without irrigation; and it does not compete with food crops or put demands on limited water and fertiliser supplies. Agave is heat and drought tolerant and can survive Australia’s hot summers.”

However, the analysis suggests that one hurdle is economics. In the context of the recent oil price collapse, the researchers caution that an industry based on agave-produced ethanol currently is not viable from a commercial point of view and would need to rely on government support to get off the ground.

Nevertheless, the current coronavirus crisis may provide the push that is so desperately needed: since ethanol is also a main ingredient of hand-sanitizers – production of which is increasingly under strain as manufacturers are unable to meet the Covid-19 induced spike in demand – agave could now become a viable industry quickly as demand for its derivative products is rising.

These developments could make the agave plant an environmentally friendly solution to many of today’s pressing issues. If done correctly, agave could well be the supplier of much sought-after biofuel and sanitizer in the future.

Image credit: Amante Darmanin/Flickr

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