Agave Could Be the Next Big Biofuel

Caroline Delbert
Photo credit: Matt Mawson - Getty Images

From Popular Mechanics

Scientists in Australia think hardy agave plants could be the next big biofuel source. In addition, the bioethanol produced from the plants could help fill unprecedented global demand for hand sanitizer.

Different nations have different regulations for what we group together as the generic term “hand sanitizers.” Indeed, at first, public health advocates had to make it clear that only alcohol-based hand sanitizer could kill COVID-19 (coronavirus) because some products you can buy in stores aren’t alcohol-based. In the U.S., ethanol hasn’t really been permitted as an ingredient in hand sanitizers for reasons relating to purity and the toxicity of these products if they’re ingested.

But that's changing, at least temporarily. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has decided to allow ethanol plants to apply for a case-by-case exemption that allows them to manufacture hand sanitizer. And in Australia, where the University of Sydney believes agave could fill an important gap in the renewable biofuel marketplace, “Preparations containing ethyl alcohol (ethanol) or isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol) are suitable for use in most health care settings.”

Agave is a desert plant native to the Americas, widely known as the base ingredient in tequila and the source of a popular white sugar alternative in the form of agave syrup. It’s so closely associated with Mexico that “tequila” is recognized as a geographical protection, like champagne or camembert. Last year, the first spirit made from all Australian-grown agave was released.

It’s in the midst of this very specific Australian agave boom that the University of Sydney researchers have started to grow and study agave plants. “Overall, the results show that agave is promising for biofuel production in the water-energy-food-environment context,” they say in their paper.

To get to that point, any burgeoning agave energy industry will need a boost from the Australian government, they add. But Australia is a global renewable energy leader, with an existing infrastructure of incentives and support for projects like this one.

There are several reasons agave is such a good biofuel crop choice. Yes, it’s energy-rich on its own, the same way sugarcane and corn are rich in energy potential. But agave is a desert plant, plain and simple.

“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 say.

It’s not just a matter of using the driest land, either. The plants are comparable or better across a variety of criteria. The researchers write:

“Our study shows that ethanol yields from agave are comparable to Brazilian sugarcane and higher than US corn ethanol. [A]gave outperforms current first generation biofuel crops in Freshwater Eutrophication (96% lower than corn and 88% lower than sugarcane), Marine Ecotoxicity (59% lower than corn and 53% lower than sugarcane) and Water Consumption (46% lower than corn and 69% lower than sugarcane).”

Could the future lie in the bottom of a bottle of tequila—or, more accurately, Australian spirits? Agave could get its just deserts.

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