Food for Progress project brings 21st century biodiesel facilities to Guatemala
The small, unassuming tropical paradise of Masagua in Guatemala's coastal region of Escuintla seems an unlikely place for 21st century technology.
But the town now boasts Guatemala's newest biodiesel fuel production plant due to a U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded Food for Progress project led by Texas A&M University's Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture.
The Biodiesel Mazat Agui facility, which went into operation earlier this month, will use seeds from an abundantly growing, oil-rich native plant as source material for biodiesel fuel production. The fuel, as well as other materials produced during its processing, will be used or sold in the Escuintla region.
"This new biodiesel plant is an example of the USDA's commitment to sustainable economic development through its investment in people," said Elizabeth Johnson, the agriculture department's acting Under Secretary for Food Safety, during the facility's opening ceremony on Dec. 3. "This investment has taken the form of education and technical assistance, and its goal is the prosperity of the citizens of Guatemala."
While the plant is a small production facility by U.S. standards, it will serve as an economic generator for the local population and a model for other such facilities in Guatemala and possibly elsewhere in Central America, said facility administrators.
"This will be an example for other communities because the facility will be using native jatropha and not corn, soybeans or other food products to produce biodiesel," said Fernando Roca, president of the newly formed company, Biodiesel Mazat Agui, S.A.
The Masagua plant is one of two biodiesel processing plants established in the region as part of Food for Progress project activities, said Johanna Roman, Latin American programs coordinator for the Borlaug Institute.
Roman said a second processing facility will open later this month in Nueva Concepcion, about 40 miles from Masagua, toward the end of the institute's current three-year Food for Progress project.
"Farmers in these areas will be using the biodiesel for fueling their own farm equipment and there may be future opportunities to sell to local industry," she said. "Along with the fuel, the 'press cake' from processed seeds can be used or sold as a natural fertilizer while glycerin, a byproduct of production, might be used in the manufacture of soap or candles."
Roman said the plants were part of the first Food for Progress project's agribusiness development efforts, which also focused on food processing and the production and marketing of high-value crops and 'non-traditional' fruits, vegetables and flowers.
A new three-year USDA-funded Food for Progress project, awarded to the Borlug Institute earlier this year, will allow its agribusiness development efforts to continue in Guatemala, including the production of bioenergy crops, she said.
Both plants have a seed press and biodiesel reactor and will be capable of producing about 80 gallons of fuel daily, with a 48-hour period from crushing the seed to the refined biodiesel product, said Dr. Travis Miller, a Texas AgriLife Extension Service agronomist from Texas A&M in College Station.
Miller has been involved in project activities to find better ways to grow and harvest jatropha in the Escuintla region.
"Jatropha seeds produce more oil than soybeans, the crop most used for that purpose in the U.S.," he said. "Thinning out stands and cutting the plants to promote new growth for more seed pods to develop will help improve oilseed yield. And if we can get two harvests a year, that should produce sufficient oilseed for the facilities to run year-round."
Miller said jatropha can grow from 20 to 30 feet tall and that oilseed content evaluations typically show the seeds contain from 33 percent to 35 percent oil.
"Soybeans usually have about an 18 percent oil content," he said. "And jatropha is a well-adapted, drought-hearty and salt tolerant plant that's very easy to grow."
Miller said jatropha is primarily used in Guatemala as a natural fencing material and has untapped income potential for area farmers.
"It should be possible to produce 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of seed per acre," he said. "That would translate to somewhere in the range of 225 to 250 gallons of oil after pressing. Growing jatropha and the other products and byproducts of biodiesel production could have real income potential for people in the area."
"The new biodiesel facilities will be a great benefit to the economic development of these rural communities," said Roman. "We're looking forward to continuing these and other Food for Progress project efforts to help Guatemalan farmers improve their lives through agriculture. We also appreciate how the USDA has been so extremely supportive of our activities."