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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

 This team completed the adaptation of the laboratory spaces for experimental data-gathering during the first period of 2015. The space is now occupied by pilot microalgae experiments (prospective studies to include in the biorefinery design) and preliminary experiments of anaerobic digestion of jatropha biomass. Experimental data-gathering also continues outside of the lab and the team continues to collect data on the properties of locally grown jatropha seeds including proximal analyses and protein profiles of the jatropha press-cake. Lastly, Karla Daniela Perez Basulto, a female chemical engineering undergraduate student joined the project team and is now actively supporting activities in the lab.

In March of 2015, Dr. Sacremento attended the USAID PEER Participants’ Forum in Lima, Peru where he shared his preliminary results was with other PEER colleagues and also identified further funding opportunities to extend the project life. Additionally, on February 26, the team conducted a field visit to Sucopo and the jatropha plantations in Tizimin. The US Partner’s PIRE project personnel travelled to Yucatan, Mexico to visit the village where the socioeconomic surveys and interviews were made and also to learn about the jatropha plantations.

The project is proceeding according to the plan and, in the coming months, the project team will complete and submit two manuscripts to peer-reviewed international journals. Also, the socioeconomic team expects to do fieldwork in Tabasco in June and July where they will conduct the quantitative survey. In May, the project staff will travel to Houghton, Mississippi to attend the annual PIRE and RCN meetings.