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Agaves not only to make tequila: scientists discover its potential for biofuel production

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Posted October 7, 2015

Agave is an easily recognizable plant. It grows in deserts and is best known for its current main use – agave plants are widely used for production of tequila in Mexico. However, as virtually everything on this planet, agaves may have more than one use.

Because it uses water extremely efficiently and requires very little care, agave is a perfect plant for biofuel production. In a year from one hectare of agaves it is possible to produce up to 15,000 litres of bioethanol, but waste from other agave industries can be used too. Image credit: Stan Shebs via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Because it uses water extremely efficiently and requires very little care, agave is a perfect plant for biofuel production. In a year from one hectare of agaves it is possible to produce up to 15,000 litres of bioethanol, but waste from other agave industries can be used too. Image credit: Stan Shebs via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Now scientists at the University of Adelaide say that it may be a perfect source of biofuel and other biochemical products. In fact, it may be even more useful for producing biofuel than it is for production of alcoholic beverages.

New research at the University of Adelaide, Australia, showed that agave plants could produce up to 15,000 litres per hectare a year of biofuel, which is very important these days. Many scientists think that biofuel will be the fuel of the future, as it is environmentally friendly and, unlike fossil fuels, is a renewable source of energy.

Although different types of biofuels with different intended purposes could be produced from virtually from every plant, some plants are better than others. Agave seems to be a perfect plant for producing biofuel not only because it can be used to produce a tremendous amount of fuel, but also because it requires very little care. It is a desert plant, which means that it grows on marginal land under low rainfall conditions.

Furthermore, although they use water extremely efficiently, agaves grow pretty fast. Scientists say that they would be very good candidates to produce bioethanol. In fact, they claim that bioethanol produced through the fermentation of agave plants could rival the most successful biofuel feedstock crops around the world, because of some particular qualities of this plant.

Unlike some other crops used for biofuel production, agaves could be used entirely – because it is fast growing whole plant could be used rather than just its leaves. Agaves are also up to 10 times more water efficient than some other crop plants. Finally, it despite its use in tequila production agave does not really compete with food crops as it requires very little care.

Scientists already have trial sites of agave established in Ayr in northern Queensland and Whyalla, South Australia. They note that agave plant produces large amounts of sugar that is easily fermented to bioethanol. However, plant can be used to manufacture other useful products as well, such as paints, plastics and high value chemicals which normally use fossil fuels.

To determine how much bioethanol could be produced, scientists analysed three types of possible raw materials to use in production of this fuel: whole plants, waste leaves from existing agave industries and agave juice. The prediction of 4000 and 15,000 litres of ethanol per hectare per year was made from analysis of whole plants, which is probably the best choice.

Associate Professor Burton, one of the authors of the study, explained what such big numbers mean for the industry: “at the low end, these values still exceed the earliest developed bioethanol feedstocks such as corn, wheat and sugarcane and, at the higher end, they double the yields of the latest, more efficient feedstocks such as switchgrass and poplar”.

In comparison, waste leaves from other existing agave industries could generate up to 8000 litres from one hectare a year. This is still a pretty good option to raise profits of the industries and reduce waste. If agave juice would be used this number would only reach 4000 litres, which is still a viable option.

Although these results are already very promising, researchers already have new steps planned. Now they are trying to establish the best cultivation methods for bioethanol production. Scientists will try to find the best planting densities and mechanisation to maximise yield and will also take a look at fermentation process. As biofuels are widely considered to be extremely significant for our future, we have to find a ways to produce them efficiently so that the final product would have a competitive price.

Source: adelaide.edu.au

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