Can the sabra cactus save the world?

Can the sabra cactus save the world?

Someday soon, the world will run on sabra-based biofuel, if British scientist and eco-entrepreneur Mike Mason has his way.

Biofuels, such as the corn-based ethanol added to gasoline, have been controversial — not least because the crops raised for fuel displace food crops.

“That’s why we need plants that grow fast in areas where food crops don’t grow,” Mr. Mason told New Scientist magazine. “The solution is a largely overlooked category of plants that includes cacti such as prickly pear and other succulents. They grow in semi-arid places too dry for rain-fed food crops.”

Prickly pears, of course, are known in Hebrew as sabra. Native to Mexico, they were imported to Israel where they are variously farmed and spurned as an invasive weed species.

CactusBut for Mr. Mason, they offer the promise of a better tomorrow.

“They produce a lot of biomass for very little water,” he explained.

Worldwide, he said, there’s an area the size of India worth of semi-arid land suitable for growing the fruit-bearing cactus. If that was all farmed with sabras, and the plants were properly fermented to produce gas, they could “in theory produce as much electricity as is currently produced globally from burning natural gas.”

He sees his biggest challenge as figuring out how to speed up fermentation. “The rumens of cows do the same thing up to 30 times as fast. If we could copy that, we could slash costs,” he said.

Meanwhile, the fermentation process produces water, which can be used to raise fish.

“We ought to be able to produce energy, protein and water all from the same land,” he said.

“My aim is billion-ton emission-reduction projects, to keep serious amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere,” he said. “The emissions from creating all this energy will be low. It could have a real effect on curbing climate change.”

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