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Agave a better biofuel than sugar cane

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Agave produces a highly-efficient intoxicant, as anyone who’s woken up “Wasting Away in Margaritaville” can attest. According to a joint Sydney University / Oxford University study, the plant could also be a highly-efficient feedstock for biofuels.

It makes sense, really: the fermentation of sugars is what gives us the ability to forget the working week on the kind of Friday lunch that ends on Saturday, so a plant that produces good booze has to have the sugars to start with.

Agave’s trick is more than that, however: it’s an arid plant, which means it’s suitable for regions where food crops are at best marginal. Sydney University senior lecturer Daniel Tan told the Sydney Morning Herald: “In terms of producing ethanol, agave is about the same as sugar cane – but the advantage over sugar cane is that they can survive in very dry areas on little water.”

By moving ethanol feedstock away from high-quality farmland, agave-driven ethanol production would therefore solve one of the conundrums of biofuels: the accusation that corn- or sugar-based ethanol production displaces food production.

Tan also says land-use changes driven by the biofuel industry can be counterproductive in CO2 terms, with crops displacement releasing more CO2 than is offset by biofuel production.

Study of a trial plantation near the regional Queensland town of Ayr has found that costs and profits should be similar to the sugar cane industry.

The report is published in Energy and Environmental Sciences. ®

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