RENEWABLE ENERGY FROM OPUNTIA?
Renewable energy almost for free, in the form of green fuel, thanks to the biomass produced from Opuntia ficus indica: a huge energy potential but almost completely overlooked today. Discover the great possibilities of sustainable development of some arid regions with the simple installation of extensive cultivation of Opuntia.
The versatility and the thousand of Opuntia’s uses were already known, but anyone had not ever thought to the possibility of using its tissues as a source of renewable energy so far. A study, bounced through the portal Agrinotizie, begun in the '80s at the Polytechnic University of Madrid and followed-up again in these days, shows that if this cactus is grown extensively, it could provide a significant production of energy in the form of bioethanol, biodiesel and biomethane.
Widespread in Central America and in the Mediterranean countries, the Opuntia is a hardy plant, easily adaptable to many different environmental conditions. The officially registered species are about 300 (107 only in Mexico), but the difficulties of identification caused by hybridization and poliploidism make this number quite uncertain. The most widespread species in the world is very well known Opuntia ficus indica, which is able to withstand prolonged periods of drought and, with the little water available, produces large amounts of biomass (fruit, blades, tissues, all parts of the plant that spontaneously fall and begin to biodegrade). If it has the right amount of water and nutrients, Opuntia can get to produce more than 150 tons of fresh biomass per hectare of cultivation: a huge asset. How to exploit it?
Mainly to produce green fuels. It is estimated that each hectare of land cultivated with Opuntia ficus indica (without irrigation, only natural rainfall) can produce an annual amount of biomass sufficient to obtain approximately 3000 liters of ethanol, 18 liters of biodiesel and 2200 Nm3 of biomethane. One of the countries with the greatest spread of cultivation of Opuntia ficus indica is Italy: Sicily produces large amounts of prickly pears exported for human consumption either directly or in the form of preserves. Assuming, therefore, to remain in Sicily and to plant Opuntia ficus indica on all Sicilians fallow or abandoned agricultural land (500 thousand hectares), you would be able to produce huge amounts of energy: 1.500.000 cubic meters of ethanol, 9000 cubic meters of biodiesel and 1100 million cubic meters of biomethane.
But how big are these numbers? The comparison is easily done: according to data of the Italian Ministry of Economic Development, the consumption of natural gas for residential purposes in Sicily (data 2010) is 723 million cubic meters. Properly take advantage of the energy produced from Opuntia ficus indica would therefore reset the consumption of natural gas for domestic use and even a surplus of energy would result, in favour of sustainable development in the region.
Today the only biogas plants powered Opuntia in the world are located in Chile, while others are being studied in Brazil and the U.S.; in Italy the use of this type of biomass seems to be still overlooked.
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