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Prickly pears and tobacco are farmed in drylands to produce bio-ethanol

The TBF (Technology-based Firm) Almeria Albaida Recursos Naturales y Medioambiente, S.A. (Spain), and the Cajamar Foundation participate in the national project for Research and Development of Ethanol for Automotive Applications (I+DEA). The purpose of this team of experts relies in the study and testing of the feasibility of two crops adapted to extreme environmental conditions – prickly-pears and tobacco tree – for the production of bio?ethanol in semiarid areas where there is no competition for the use of raw materials for food purposes or for farmland.

In particular, the tasks of the Almeria scientists are embodied in the sub-project of Energy crops for use in current technologies for bio-ethanol production, focusing on research of bio-ethanol production alternatives in semiarid areas. There, the experts are involved in the research and testing of the feasibility of the prickly-pear (Opuntia ficus indica) and the tobacco tree (Nicotiana glauca). These two species are perfectly adapted to conditions of extreme water shortage and at the same time these plants have high energy biomass due to the fermentation process of their organic matter. The experts began their work “with the establishment of experimental plantations for the industrial production of bio-ethanol", said Mercedes Uceda. These plants have been planted on the land which has been made available for TBF Albaida for the study of their actual biomass production. For this, the experimental plantations of tobacco tree and two eco-types of prickly-pears – one from the Andarax Valley and the other from Cabo de Gata – are being subjected to three water regimes. Natural farming - which only uses rainwater-, and two other systems - medium to high water supply - to analyze the variation in its growth and biomass production as regards to the available water. The Department of Plant Production at the Polytechnic School of Madrid, directed by Jesus Fernandez, is responsible for the adjustment of the bio-ethanol extraction process from sugars, occurring in the fruits and the plants of these two species. The ultimate goal of this study, the final decision is scheduled for completion within three years, is to narrow down the knowledge of the biomass productivity of both species and the production of bio-ethanol fuels without interfering in the production of foodstuffs, as these crops may be harvested on land that cannot be used for growing food species. The model, which will result in the exploitation of both crops for bio-fuel production implies a change in the current paradigm. The purpose is to develop small scale distillation plants that operate locally, instead of large distilleries, generally located in port areas which receive their supplies from remote regions. Therefore, it is a more sustainable model for fuel production with a particular potential for development in our region. This study is a part of the CDIT (Centre for the Development of Industrial Technology) macro-project: Research and Development of Ethanol for Automotive Applications (I+DEA). The CDIT program provides funding for industrial research projects in the field of future technologies and potential international expansion. Its purpose is the generation of new knowledge that could prove useful in developing new products, processes or services or for the integration of technologies of strategic interest, thus contributing to improving the technological position of the Spanish production system. This project brings together 25 companies and 27 national research centres, which aim to promote the introduction of bio-ethanol in the Spanish fuel market while it positions the Spanish industry as a leader in the technologic sector and the production and use of bio-ethanol as fuel. The scope of the project covers the complete cycle of bio-fuels, that is, from the production of the raw materials and the transformation technologies from biomass into ethanol, to its application in the motor industry.