Agave Shows Potential as an Alternative Biofuel Source

Common biofuel production sources have shown the potential to create natural resource use concerns. As a result, alternative sources are now being explored.

The Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 required fuel producers to increase to at least 36 billion gallons of biofuel by the year 2022. It set a goal of 15 billion gallons of conventional ethanol use by 2015 and at least 21 billion gallons of non-cornstarch ethanol and advanced biofuels by 2022. This increased demand for biofuels poses some potential food stock, environmental, and natural resource use concerns.

Growing demand for conventional ethanol has shown the potential to transfer high-yield agricultural land from food production to biofuel production leading to food price increases and, ultimately, possible food shortages. In addition, the demand for increased production of not only corn but non-cornstarch sources such as sugarcane and grasses could lead to increased fertilizer and irrigation water use. These issues are seen as serious drawbacks in the use of alternative fuels.

Agave Plants May Show Potential To Reduce Some Biofuels Production Disadvantages

To address these concerns, scientists are searching for alternative biofuel sources that would not compete with food production or create substantially increased demands on natural resources. One potential alternative is the agave plant.

Agave has already been commercially-grown for many years in Mexico for sugar feedstocks, alcohol feedstocks (primarily tequila), and for sisal, a raw material for rope, twine, and bags. Because of its inherent production characteristics, it has recently come under review as a possible biofuel source.

Agave plants are perennials, meaning that they do not have to be planted every year, but instead come back from rootstock season after season. This reduces the labour involved with maintaining agave fields. Perhaps more importantly, most agave species are well-adapted to arid conditions and tolerate both drought and high temperature extremely well. This enables agave to thrive in areas where food stock plants and most current biofuel source plants could not survive. Therefore, agave production would not take away from high-yield agricultural lands and, for an added bonus, would reduce the need for irrigation and fertilizer use.

Current Agave Research

The Agave Project, initiated by Arturo Valez Jimenez, is an intense agave fuel research project in Mexico. In cooperation with Mexican energy companies, universities, and local governments, Jimenez both explores and promotes agave’s biofuels potential as an environmentally friendly option. The project is currently conducting research on developing enhanced cultivars with additional sugar content, quantifying agave’s ethanol production capabilities, and identifying production sites. Jimenez estimates there are 198 million acres of marginal and semiarid land in Mexico where agave could successfully be grown.

Ausagave, an Australian company, is researching agave production in that country. Sugarcane is the source of the primary biofuel grown in Australia, but as in Mexico, there is plenty of land in Australia that is not suitable for sugarcane. These areas are currently being evaluated for agave production. Researchers with Ausagave estimate that agave could yield between 10,000 and 16,000 liters of ethanol per hectare per annum compared to sugarcane’s yields of 9,500 liters per hectare per annum. These numbers, combined with agave’s ability to thrive on marginal lands, make it an attractive companion to sugarcane in Australia’s biofuel industry.

These researchers have shown that agave shows the potential to be a significant source of biofuels production stock without the disadvantages found with some of the current feedstock sources. Additional work remains to be done in determining the specifics of processing, the development of an agave processing industry, and the logistics of transporting agave feedstocks to processing facilities.