Biofuel. Ethanol is made from corn, right? Well, no, not exactly. Ethanol is basically, well, alcohol. And as we all know, alcohol is produced by fermenting sugars. Corn, relatively high in starchy goodness and complex carbohydrates that can be turned into sugars, has been a leader in ethanol production in the United States. Of course sugar beets and sugar cane are also highly suitable to this task, and used elsewhere around the world.
But the thing is, corn, sugar beets, sugar cane, these are all food. To use them to produce gas for our cars means that we have less food. To farm the land for them to make gas means that we can’t farm that land for food for us to eat. And let’s face it, to power all of our cars with green ethanol biofuel would take more farmable land than this planet has, not to mention really put a damper on our ability to live since, you know, we’d all have gone hungry and died of starvation to fuel all of our cars. As you can see, ethanol from corn and sugar is part of a solution, but it is not the solution. World hunger hasn’t exactly gone away on its own yet, and turning food into gas isn’t helping it any.
What if there were a crop that could be grown in arid desserts though, that could still make good ethanol? Where might one find such a miracle solution?
Surprisingly, it took researchers from the University of Sydney (you know, in Australia) working with researchers from Oxford University (that little school thing over in the UK) to come up with an idea that should have come from across the pond / from the other side of the planet. Their brilliant solution? Their miracle plant? Agave!
Sometimes it takes an Aussie to see what should have been right under our noses. (If someone else had the idea, I’ve somehow missed it, and would dearly appreciate a link. The first I’ve heard of this however comes from a British source about research being done on agave in Australia, of all places.)
And it is brilliantly simple and perfectly suited to Australia, as well as, potentially, many other places in the world which have stretches of barely usable land. Making it a perfect fit for biofuel production that does not interfere with global food production.
Yes, I’m taking about tequila. No, I mean mescal. Well … no, but close. I’m talking about alcohol made from AGAVE.
Yeah, that sweetener that I’ve only just started using in my tea recently, agave nectar*. It’s sweeter than honey, and less viscous (syrupy) so it dissolves better. Mexicans have been turning the starches stored in this succulent, agave, for a looooooooooong time. So just why exactly it took an Aussie to suggest making the world greener with a Tequila Sunrise is the question of the century.
But it’s a brilliant solution. Because as it turns out, agave is a charming plant. As a succulent nature made it to thrive in crappy arid conditions. It needs very little water to live. It stores lots and lots of energy to survive. In fact, “You get up to five times more energy out of the plant than you put in,” claims Daniel Tan, a senior lecturer in agronomy at the University of Sydney. Dr. Tan further expounds, “In terms of producing ethanol, agave is about the same as sugar cane.”
And as world biofuel experts are often keen to point out, ethanol from sugar is more efficient than ethanol from corn. Which means that agave could revolutionize the biofuel industry! It’s a top-notch source of ethanol and it grows in deserts where it won’t compete with food production!
So it should be very interesting to see where this research goes, and how the world adapts to it. The United States has already placed a tariff on imported ethanol to protect US corn farmers from cheaper sugar-based ethanol from the likes of Brazil. But if every country out there with a lot of sand started growing agave and turning it into ethanol, the world could literally be flooded with cheap biofuel the likes of which the US could never stand up to with corn. (Of course the US has its own large stretches of agave-friendly land to join in with.) It could also, potentially, create an exportable politically correct good for some countries in dire need of them.