Forget Tequila, Agave Could Be a Sustainable Source of Hand Sanitizer

Alcohol made from agave plants could also be a more environmentally-friendly source for biofuels.

With stay-at-home orders in place, you may have stockpiled bottles of tequila to help you get through. But in the future, agave plants might do more than just produce booze to get you through a pandemic. New research out of Australia suggests that the plant used for tequila could also make for an excellent alternative biofuel.

Currently, the ethanol used as biofuel tends to come from more common sources like corn or sugarcane. However, scientists believe agave tequilana—the specific agave species used to produce tequila—offers something those options don’t. Native to the arid terrain of Mexico, these plants require very little water, meaning environmental benefits and agricultural flexibility.

“Agave is an environmentally friendly crop that we can grow to produce ethanol-based fuels and healthcare products,” Daniel K.Y. Tan, an associate professor from the Sydney Institute of Agriculture and co-author of the study, stated. “It can grow in semi-arid areas without irrigation; and it does not compete with food crops or put demands on limited water and fertilizer supplies. Agave is heat and drought tolerant and can survive Australia's hot summers.”

A field of Blue Agave in Jalisco Mexico
Matt Mawson/Getty Images

The research team looked at agave being grown for biofuel in Queensland and found that it uses 69 percent less water than sugarcane and 46 percent less water than corn for the same yields. And though yields for agave were a bit lower than sugar cane, they were nearly double those of U.S. corn production. “This is the first comprehensive lifecycle assessment and economic analysis of bioethanol produced from [agave],” Tan added. “This shows agave is an economic and environmental winner for biofuel production in the years to come.”

However, the researchers admit the timing of these findings isn’t ideal as oil prices have collapsed alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, making biofuels less economically alluring. And yet, Tan also believes ethanol from these plants can have additional, more pressing uses. “The economic analysis suggests that a first generation of bioethanol production from agave is currently not commercially viable without government support, given the recent collapse in the world oil price,” he said. “However, this may change with the emerging demand for new ethanol-based healthcare products, such as hand sanitizers.”

Regardless, ethanol demand won’t totally disappear, and agave’s ability to produce alcohol is well-documented: Tequila has been around for centuries. If anything, it’s surprising scientists haven’t really looked into this before.

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