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Why Scientists Want To Turn Cacti Into Renewable Energy In Mexico

By Aimee Lutkin

The prickly pear cactus is an extremely popular plant in Mexico. It's grown as food, added to everything from tacos to candies, and it's also used as an ingredient in cosmetics and even medicine. The Nation reports that farming the prickly pear is a tradition for some families that goes back generations, and it's a clear symbol of culture. In fact, a prickly pear is featured on the Mexican flag, holding up a mighty eagle eating a snake. A farmer named Israel Vazquez, who has been working a plot of prickly pears for two decades, told reporters, "Since before the Spanish conquistadors arrived, we have eaten prickly pear cactus. It's our tradition and our culture."

Vazquez is referring to the Aztec story of Huitzilopochtli, who led the Aztecs to the spot where Mexico City now stands to build their capital, Tenochtitlan. Huitzilopochtli told them they'd recognize the spot when they saw an eagle eating a snake on top of a prickly pear cactus. The cactus itself grew from the heart of one of Huitzilopochtli's enemies, after he tore it out and threw it in the lake. The fruit represents that heart, and that's where both the food of the plant (and theoretically its power) comes from.

But the remains of the cactus ends up as waste. Researchers from green energy start up Suema, or Energy and Environmental Sustainability, have been working for years on ways to deal with the by-product of all this celebratory prickly pear consumption. They've developed a biogas generator that can convert the prickly pear leftovers in methane, and set up a prototype on Mexico City's south side.