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Partnerships for enhanced engagement in research (PEER) SCIENCE
Special PEER-PIRE Cycle (June 2012 Deadline)

NSF-PIRE collaboration: sustainability evaluation of jatropha oil production in Yucatan, Mexico

PI:  Julio Sacramento-Rivero, Universidad Autonoma de Yucatan (UADY)
US Partner: Kathy Halvorsen et al., Michigan Technological University (MTU)
Project Dates: December 2012 - November 2015

Project Overview 

This project relates to a five-year Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) award entitled Sustainability, Ecosystem Services, and Bioenergy Development across the Americas, which was funded by NSF beginning in October 2012.  Dr. Julio Sacramento-Rivero and his colleagues will work with Dr. Kathy Halvorsen and her group at Michigan Tech to address such questions as “How is bioenergy development affecting social systems?” and “What sustainability indicators and metrics best assess biofuel sustainability across highly variable Pan American socio-ecological systems?” This work will be performed in the context of the jatropha oil industry currently under development in the state of Yucatan, Mexico. This case study is unique in that it presents both universal and idiosyncratic aspects of sustainability to be evaluated. Although commercial-oil production is not expected to begin in Yucatan until 2014 or 2015, several communities have already been affected by the planting and cultivation stages, and it is uncertain how the currently planned commercialization model will impact sustainability in the region.

Mexico Partnership Picture A 
Aparajita Banerjee and Mayra Sánchez carrying out a semi-structured qualitative interview with a housewife in Samaria, Tizimín, July 2013 (Photo courtesy Dr. Sacramento-Rivero).

MexicoPartnership Picture B 
Mayra Sánchez and Aparajita Banerjee interviewing the eldest daughter of a family of 12 in Samaria, Tizimín, July 2013 (Photo courtesy Dr. Sacramento-Rivero).

Thus, this project aims to evaluate the sustainability of the production and commercialization process of jatropha oil, and the socioeconomic impacts of this activity on the local communities in Yucatan and the broader national system. Also, although the current commercialization model is primarily concerned with biodiesel sales, it has been strongly suggested that the economic viability of such systems can be greatly benefit from the integral use of the jatropha plant. In that sense, a biorefinery system will be designed and included in the sustainability assessment, as an alternative, expanded system. For this stage, fundamental engineering experiments will be performed on the local feedstock at the Faculty of Chemical Engineering at UADY and at MTU, which will generate characterization data of the local feedstock that will be required for evaluation of both biofuel-oriented and biorefinery-oriented systems. Funds from the PEER Science grant to UADY will support the purchase of new lab equipment, materials, and software; domestic and international travel for fieldwork and training; and PhD student stipend support.

Summary of Recent Activities


The summer of 2014 proved to be a very productive time for Dr. Sacramento-Rivero and his team. In addition to publishing six unique papers, the team revisited the town of Sucopo in July to conduct a new 200 household questionnaire to gather data on people´s perceptions on water use and quality within the community. A database was compiled with the information gathered and is currently being analyzed by the socioeconomic team with the help of Dr. Alex Mayer of Michigan Technological University. MTU also hosted post-doctoral team member, Freddy Navarro, for a short research stay in which he completed a preliminary Life Cycle Assessment of a jatropha-based production system in Yucatan.

In addition to the survey data, the team enlisted a new postgraduate team member to assist with collecting data on the properties of locally grown jatropha seeds. The team also continued to adapt their laboratory spaces for experimental data-gathering and should finish the renovations before winter.

Dr. Sacramento is comfortable that the project will proceed as planned in the foreseeable future. The support from the US partner has been very helpful and productive, and a good collaborative relationship has been built which will be crucial to further analyzing and reviewing data in the coming months. The team has also planned a field trip to Tabasco in early October to explore collaboration with a group of Ecology researchers in order to study the sustainability of palm biodiesel in Tabasco. Part of the methodology implemented for studying the sustainability of jatropha biodiesel in Yucatan will be replicated there. Lastly, Dr. Julio Sacramento, will deliver a lecture on the RCN graduate course Sustainability of Biofuels in Pan America in early October.