Agave biofuel project

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A squat succulent with a rosette of thick fleshy leaves, the agave plant is best known for producing tequila. But in Australia the agave plant has a new home and a new purpose: making biofuel.

Dr Daniel Tan, a senior lecturer in agronomy at the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment is currently trialling the agave plant as an alternative source of biofuel. He believes it has the potential to be a greenhouse-gas friendly solution to the fuel crisis.

For a country such as Australia, with its high dependency on transport fuels, this prospect has enormous potential – it could transform our environment and our economy. Unlike many other crops used to make ethanol, agave has a positive bioenergy rating, as it can create five times the energy required to produce it.

The other major advantage of agave is its hardiness. The shrub can grow in arid, semi-desert areas of inland Australia with little irrigation, which means it won’t compete with food crops or place demands on already limited water supplies.

In their initial research on the first trial crop of agave plants on the Kalamia Estate in northern Queensland, the team found that agave has the potential to sequester 7.5 tonnes of CO2 emissions per hectare per year. It also yields a number of co-products that have widespread use in the food and pharmaceutical industries.

Before a large-scale adoption is possible, the group needs to conduct more trials at different locations across Australia, to determine ideal locations for agave to be grown.

Dr Tan’s project is set to continue, along with other research into sustainable agriculture, thanks to a fortuitous gift from the late Mrs Nancy Roma Paech. In 2009 the University received more than $8.6m from her estate, for the purpose of “financing research in matters pertaining to agricultural science”.

Income from the bequest will support investigation of low-impact, broad-acre agriculture that is the future of sustainable land management on the Australian continent. This use honours Nancy Paech’s early life as the daughter of a farming family in outback Queensland.

Implications of the research will extend far beyond our borders as well. A large proportion of the world’s poorest people depend on rangelands and the animals they support. There will be increasing demand for knowledge in this field from countries like China, Africa and India.