The Remarkable Power of the Prickly Pear

May 26, 2020

The landscape could be one straight from a postcard of a Mexican desert. With strong sun almost directly overhead, a green field of cacti cover the dusty surroundings of Camémbaro, a farming community in the state of Michoacan. Nopal, as this type of oval-leafed plant is known all over the country, does not only grow in these lands.

Also known as the prickly pear, it can be found all over the Mesoamerican region and it is so emblematic that it has a prime spot on Mexico’s national flag. It is regularly consumed as salad or in healthy shakes, or in less virtuous tortillas and nacho chips. The inedible waste products are normally discarded but in this town, after the cactus had given all it can as a food, people saw the potential of turning this waste into a new fuel source.

In 2009, local businessman Rogelio Sosa Lopez had already succeeded in the corn-made tortilla industry and partnered with Miguel Angel Ake to found Nopalimex, a company that grows cacti as a cheaper alternative to corn. They found that nopal crops produce between 300 and 400 tonnes of biomass per hectare in less fertile lands, and up to 800-1,000 tonnes in richer soils. Nopal also requires minimum water consumption and its waste, if properly processed, can be turned into biofuel.

“We are sowing nopal for three reasons. The first one is social – it creates jobs and prevents emigration. Secondly, from an economic perspective, it reduces the cost of industrial processing of nopal-based products. Lastly and most importantly, there is an environmental reason,” says Ake. The hope is that biofuel from nopal can be a viable alternative to fossil fuels in the region.

Ake started to explore biofuels more than 40 years ago, but he began to experiment with cacti in 2007. Now, his company is producing enough fuel for the buildings that process all parts of the nopal plant in a sustainable way. But he plans to go further. He has already signed a commitment with the local government of Zitacuaro, in the state of Michoacan, to provide official vehicles, from police cars to ambulances, with cactus-based fuel.

“With the amount of nopal we have in Mexico, and a productivity of over 100 tonnes of gas per acre, we believe that this could eventually replace the traditional use of gas and fuel of non-renewable sources,” he says.

The process is relatively simple. First, the cacti are cut and processed to extract flour, which is used to make tortilla chips. The remaining inedible scraps of the plant are mixed with cow dung in a bio-processor, a fermentation tank that heats the wasted cactus pulp. Then the fuel is distilled from the remaining liquid and collected via tubes and into a tank.

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