If you’re searching for alternative ethanol energy, you needn’t look any further than your own backyard… or Tanzania. Biofuels from non-food sources – from agave cacti grown in the desert lands of Africa to algae cultivated in petri dishes in laboratories around the world – are replacing old-standard feedstocks, like corn, which are increasingly seen more and more as ethically and economically inappropriate.
Determining the economic feasibility of a specific biofuel boils down to a few relatively simple equations. Does the energy output (in the case of vehicles using a certain type of biofuel, miles per gallon) exceed the energy input (the amount of energy required to grow, harvest, refine and transport that biofuel)? Does the biofuel have mass-marketing appeal? Can today’s engines run on this particular ethanol, or will conversion require new or retrofitted engines?
These questions angle toward the pragmatic and logical. But today’s global community demands that other concerns be met – that of human rights and environmental health. Which is why using the agave plant to create usable ethanol, although slightly less economical, has a distinct ethical advantage over corn.
What makes agave an attractive option? If grown sustainably, it is a renewable energy source. Unlike other fuel crops, such as switchgrass, agave can be grown on marginal lands and, as such, will not edge out agricultural food production for space – meaning that agave will not outcompete food for limited land resources, which annuls the “food versus fuel” debate. Since it grows in dry, arid regions, desert nations, such as Tanzania, will be in excellent positions to supply this commodity to the world and compete effectively in the global marketplace.
And agave corners the environmental health market. It produces substantially less CO2 when burned compared to corn and grows more efficiently with far fewer agricultural inputs.
Alas, choosing agave to fuel our cars might reduce the supply of cacti available for alcohol production and drive up the price of tequila. So in diffusing one prickly debate, this cactus might end up starting another…