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jun 13, 2017

Macaúba, Brazil’s new “green gold”

A plant has been deemed one of the richest natural resources in Brazil. The macaúba palm tree (Acronomia aculeata), a rustic plant native to Brazil, offers several useful attributes ranging from human nutrition and cosmetics to biofuels.

Biologists first suggested the plant as a source of biofuels back in the early 2000s. Since then, the macaúba has surpassed even the researchers’ expectations, who have now discovered benefits from the tree that go beyond energy production.

In fact, macaúba oil can be used for human consumption, both in oils and cosmetics, which is actually far more lucrative than the biofuels industry.

“Agricultural and industrial technologies are consolidated, the market possesses a demand for the products and the economic results are impressive,” says Felipe Morbi, director of Acrotech, a company that planted 520 hectares of the macaúba palm tree in Mato Grosso. 

Biologists believe that the multipurpose nature of macaúba oil will benefit the biofuel research process. The range of options for its use would guarantee its economic sustainability and survival throughout its development as a biofuel alternative. Moreover, researchers are arriving at advanced stages of its processing, indicating that the plant may soon be ready for use.

The tree reaches from 5 to 15 meters tall and has spikes along its trunk and leaves. For this reason, the locals also refer to it as the “spikey coconut tree”. They can be found in regions across Brazil except for the south, and can survive despite extremely hot, dry weather - even limited rainfall doesn't threaten this hearty plant. 

The macaúba fruit itself contains four parts: the pulp, the endocarp, the husk and the nut. The most nutrient rich are the pulp and the nut. For example, the pulp provides an oil with great potential for biodiesel and bio-kerosene production (much like palm oil, also widely present in Brazil).

Meanwhile, the nut possesses ideal characteristics for the production of cosmetics due to its ability to treat the skin. Moreover, after being processed, the husk can produce a protein-rich paste -- perfect for feeding cattle. Finally, the endocarp of the macaúba can be turned into active coal, to be used in gas and liquid filters.

Last but not least, the macaúba is a great plant to recover degraded lands. The company Acrotech, which planted hundreds of hectares of palm trees, proved that the strong roots could impede the formation of holes in pastures and help create a microclimate amenable to the diversification of plant life in the soil. While the tree is taking care of the earth, it produces up to four tons of pulp oil per hectare. And researchers are hoping to increase that productivity by the double. 

“There’s no other word for it: the fruit is spectacular; now the market just has to discover it,” says Morbi.