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What is the environmental impact of cultivating agave as a biofuel?

Jacob Zuckerman
May 15, 2015
A Couch's spadefoot toad is one of several species of wildlife attracted to the agave plant plots. Emily Kuzmick also documented mice, squirrels, reptiles and insects at the Arizona site. Photo by Emily Kuzmick
A Couch's spadefoot toad is one of several species of wildlife attracted to the agave plant plots. Emily Kuzmick also documented

Ohio University graduate student Emily Kuzmick is examining the use of the agave plant as a biofuel. One chief question she’s exploring with research advisor Sarah Davis is the environmental impact of cultivating the plant.

The term “biofuel” refers to the product of a process that converts biological material—in this case, the Agave americana plant, commonly known as the “century plant”—into usable energy. While corn is commonly used as a biofuel, Agave americana may be a more feasible source for the southwestern United States, according to Kuzmick.

“They’re [Agave americana] these large spiky succulent plants that are native to the United States’ Southwest,” Kuzmick says. “Some of the main reasons why they’re being considered for energy is that they’re very water use efficient. We’re looking at whether they require irrigation at all.”

Although plant biology isn’t her background, when Kuzmick heard of Davis’ Agave americana project, she knew she wanted to take part, she says. Davis developed the idea to build the plot and conduct the research, but she added Kuzmick to the project to figure out what effect the plant cultivation would have on the environment, due to Kuzmick’s background in environmental biology.

Kuzmick was able to secure funding to assess the impact of an agave field on native wildlife, Davis notes. The student received support from the Voinovich School's Environmental Studies Program for travel reimbursement, as well as an Ohio University Graduate Student Senate Original Work Grant.

“One of the difficult things about doing research is securing funding to address the kind of questions that you want to work on,” says Davis, an assistant professor for the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs. “Emily was persistent … she continued to apply to different opportunities and eventually was successful.”

Voinovich School graduate student Emily Kuzmick measures carbon dioxide and photosynthesis productivity of the agave plants as part of a research project directed by faculty member Sarah Davis. Photo credit: Sarah Davis.

The larger project to investigate agave as a biofuel feedstock is funded by Davis’ grant from the Energy Biosciences Institute (a collaborative research institute managed jointly by the University of California-Berkeley, University Of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and BP), with additional funds provided by Ohio University.

Kuzmick conducted her field work in Arizona in the summer of 2014. She measured species diversity at the Agave site, a cotton site and a native site by establishing pitfall trap arrays—essentially a sequence of 5-gallon buckets, buried so the tops are flush with the ground—to determine species composition. She then compared these species to those captured or observed across sites to determine the relative impact of Agave cultivation on biodiversity compared to conventional agriculture.

Her work yielded some unexpected yet promising results. She found that the Agave americana site attracted much denser populations of local animals, while the cotton site (which is much more irrigation-intensive) attracted a wider range of species. According to Kuzmick, this means that the Agave americana site is more conducive for supporting local wildlife communities.

Kuzmick presented her research findings at the 2015 Ohio University Student Expo.

Looking to the future, there is still much work to be done. Kuzmick and Davis are trying to figure out how to deal with an infestation of snout weevils on the Agave plot. In the meantime, Kuzmick wants to further her knowledge of the intersection of biology, energy, the environment and people.

“I think it’s important to consider all aspects of where you’re planting these crops,” Kuzmick says. “When you’re only considering one aspect of a project, it’s easy to think everything’s going to work out, when actually you have an entire ecosystem to consider.”

See original article on the Office of Research website.