Plant power

University of Sydney researchers are leading Australia’s efforts to transform the agave plant into a powerful fuel source.

plant power

Dr Daniel Tan and the agave plant

A squat succulent with a rosette of thick fleshy leaves, the agave plant is best known for producing that stalwart of Mexican drinks, tequila. But in Australia the agave plant has a new home and a new purpose, replacing its surly reputation as a ‘rocket fuel’ with a more sophisticated purpose as a producer of biofuel.

So could this humble succulent provide an environmentally friendly solution to powering Australia’s transport industry? Dr Daniel Tan, a senior lecturer in agronomy in the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment at the University of Sydney, thinks that scenario is plausible. He is currently trialling the agave plant as an alternative biofuel source and believes it has the potential to be a more successful ethanol producer than many of the other crops currently used.

For a country such as Australia, with its high dependency on transport fuels, his discoveries from this trial promise to be significant, as the agave plant offers a potentially greenhouse-gas friendly solution to the fuel crisis.

“We needed to determine if it was energy and greenhouse gas positive, and we have now calculated that it is,” he says. “We also want to determine the best locations and environment for it to grow in… one of the concepts was to try and identify a crop plant that could grow in the interior part of Australia, so in semi-arid or semi-desert type environments.”

Daniel Tan and agave plant

In their initial research on the first trial crop of agave plants on the Kalamia Estate in northern Queensland, Dr Tan and his team have already shown that agave has the potential to sequester 7.5 tonnes of CO2 emissions per hectare per year. And it can grow in arid areas of inland Australia with little irrigation, which means it won’t compete with food crops or place demands on already limited water supplies.

It also yields a number of co-products that have widespread use in the food and pharmaceutical industries, including a low GI fructans for diabetics and beneficial bifidobacteria – probiotics (micro-organisms) which can help digestion by boosting the numbers of naturally occurring friendly bacteria in the gut, while restricting harmful bacteria.

Finally, the agave has a positive bioenergy rating. Unlike many other ethanol sources, agave creates five times the energy required to produce it.

So far the trial looks successful, but before a large-scale adoption is possible Tan says the team would like to conduct more trials at different locations across Australia, to determine ideal locations for agave to be grown. “We’d like to make sure it is financially competitive with other crops and also complementary to existing agricultural practices,” he adds.

This story was first published in the Sydney Annual.

Donor spotlight: Creating new solutions

Our donors’ generosity increasingly reflects recognition of the University’s world-renowned research. Take Nancy Roma Paech, who bequeathed more than $8.6 million to the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment in support of research into agricultural science. Income from the Paech bequest will support projects in the faculty’s Centre for Carbon, Water and Food – projects similar to Dr Daniel Tan’s, which could create innovative solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.

Daniel Tan