Agave is proving itself

By Anna Simet | October 24, 2012

Over the course of my years at Biomass Magazine, I’ve written several articles about the potential of agave as an energy crop. If you’re a tequila connoisseur, you might know all about agave.

Arturo Velez is developer of the Agave Project and seems to be the go-to guy when it comes to agave. I’ve spoken with him many times in the past about the project, which in short is a Mexican initiative to produce next generation biofuels from agave biomass. Velez says that so far the project has expanded to twenty countries, and though it is still in the research and demonstration phase, results so far “have been compelling.”

 This week, he gave me a brief update on progress, telling me that it has now been scientifically demonstrated that agave is the best feedstock for ethanol production—both first and second generation—and similar results can be expected for all sugar-based liquid biofuels, including biodiesel, biojet fuel, butanol and isobutanol.

 Seems like a bold statement, but Velez has facts to back it. He pointed out that just a few months ago, the Royal Society of Chemistry published  work on characterization and chemical composition of agave fibers, which found that when compared to poplar tree and switchgrass, agave dry biomass was superior and can yield up to twice the cellulosic gallons of ethanol per hectare. Additionally, a life-cycle analysis and energy balance study published by Oxford University and Sydney University compared agave to corn and sugarcane and concluded that it superior to both for first generation ethanol production.

 These are only a few of the many studies conducted on the biofuel potential of agave during the last year. Something to keep in mind when talking about yield potential is that the different agave varities have a range different yields—Velez is focused on Agave American, which he says he can get yields of  65 tons of dry biomass per hectare, yielding up to four times more cellulosic ethanol per hectare per year than switchgrass or poplar tree.

Several years ago, it seemed agave was in the great-idea-on-paper-but-far-from-a-reality category. Today, however, it’s clear that those who believe it in have made leaps and bounds in proving its potential, and agave is now a lot closer to being a contender for a commercial biofuel feedstock.