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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

In preparation for beginning data gathering activities in the summer of 2013, Dr. Sacramento and his group held two training sessions for the students who would serve as data collectors. The students learned about quantitative survey techniques at a session on July 11, and training on qualitative interview methods was held on July 15. Working in collaboration with Dr. Sacramento and visiting researcher Dr. Sam Sweitz of Michigan Tech (the latter supported with NSF PIRE award funds), the students subsequently carried out 252 quantitative household surveys in Tizimín, Muná, and Sotuta, including individuals and families both employed and not employed in jatropha-related jobs. A total of 79 qualitative interviews were also carried out in the jatropha-affected areas of Tizimín and Abala.

Meanwhile, a workshop on Development of Biofuels in Mexico was organized on August 12-13 at UADY, featuring an invited speaker from the Center for Biosystems Research (CIECO) at the Autonomous University of Mexico campus in Morelia. With regard to educational capacity building, project research assistant Freddy Navarro has recently been accepted into a PhD program at UADY. During his studies he will continue his participation in the PEER project with help from a student stipend that began in August 2013. He will be taking the online PIRE course on sustainability as part of the integration of the two projects. Two undergraduate students working on the PEER project at UADY have also been supported. Equipment funds included in the PEER grant are being leveraged with additional support from another source that is expected to arrive in October 2013, after which the planned items will be purchased. In the coming months, Dr. Sacramento and his team will be finishing the conceptual design and beginning numerical simulation of their biorefinery-oriented system. They will also continue reviewing sustainability assessments of biofuel production in the Panamerican region and analyzing the results of their survey data.