Just when you think the only biofuel source will come from conventional farming with conventional crops, the scientists at the USDA’s ARS discover something new and interesting. This time the plant in question is a shrub called Guayule (pronounced why-YOU-lee) and it is native to the American Southwest. This desert shrub produces high quality latex that lacks the proteins associated with most latex allergies and the material that remains after extracting latex contains about the same amount of energy as a similar quantity of charcoal.
The medical industry is excited about guayule’s latex because it is of sufficient quality to produce premium gloves, tubing, sheets and other products that when produced from the rubber tree can cause deadly allergic reactions in some patients. What’s even cooler about this latex source is that it is extracted with water, which puts less strain on the environment than organic-solvent-dependent processes.
Once the latex is gone, the remaining sawdust-like plant material (called bagasse) could be burned directly, but it also shows excellent potential as a source of ethanol, bio-oil and synthetic gas.
Guayule is a perennial, so it need be planted only once for many years of harvest. According to ARS scientists, the plant requires no herbicide once it is established and isn’t susceptible to any significant insect, fungal or bacterial pests. The branches can be harvested as soon as two years after planting under ideal conditions. And guayule can be re-harvested every year and a half thereafter. Now that’s exciting.
I don’t think that guayule is any panacea, but it is an interesting desert shrub that’s easy and ecologically inexpensive to grow. Guayule could be part of a global solution in the long term.
Photos courtesy ARS: Top photo by Jack Dykinga; bottom photo by Peggy Greb.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.