The Northern Atacama Region of Chile contains the driest places on earth. With little rainfall and an extremely arid climate, there are not many species that thrive. However, one that does is the prickly pear cactus, and it may be the key to producing a new type of bioenergy in arid areas.
Chilean scientists from the Universidad Mayor, headed by Dr. Alex Vega, have started to plant prickly pear in Copiapó. The plan is to create biomass from the cactus and with that, produce energy. They anticipate that the project should be functioning by 2013.
This cactus can be used to produce two types of clean energy. The first method is to dry out the cactus with solar energy, and then make a pellet out of the dry material to be used as fuel in power plants instead of using so much coal. The second method is to produce methane gas which can be used to generate electricity.
The project’s organizers hope that by 2013, two of the companies that have invested in the project will be able to light their factories using energy from a prickly pear power plant which will hopefully produce 1.5 megawatts of energy.
The prickly pear has many advantages as a bioenergy source. It can be grown without its fruit (known as tunas in Chile), which is useful because the green part is the most efficient energy producer. It tolerates extreme conditions and therefore provides a good option for climates where other plants can not be grown for bioenergy. It also can be harvested two times a year. The price is right as well, as prickly pear energy will only cost around $35 per megawatt-hour. And finally, the residues from the drying process are highly nutritive and can be used as fertilizer to grow more cactus.
Source: El Mostrador
For more information in English, see this article from the Santiago Times.