WASHINGTON, July 9, 2014 – Tobacco, bad? Not necessarily.

A team from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Kentucky are exploring ways to engineer the plant so that its leaves produce oil that can more easily be converted into a fuel source for everything from cars to tractors and yachts.

“All the things that make tobacco bad are really good for fuels,” said Bill Shelander, business development specialist at Lawrence Berkeley. “When you smoke cigarettes you are smoking tar and nicotine. Tobacco is unusually high in tar content and it’s the type of chemical that can be converted into fuels. If these plants were buried for millions of years they would be a very nice oil reserve.”

The project, called Folium, is backed by a $4.8 million grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy or ARPA-E, a U.S. Department of Energy agency that funds the research and development of emerging energy technologies.

Folium is aimed at producing high-density liquid fuels in the green biomass of tobacco. By introducing genetic material from microorganisms and other plants, tobacco can synthesize hydrocarbon fuels in its leaves and stems. Also, tobacco can be engineered to increase efficiency of CO2 uptake and solar energy capture. Coupled with improvements in agricultural practices, these approaches will increase the yield of fuel production in tobacco.

The idea for biofuel — using plants as a fuel source — is nothing new, but it gained popularity in recent years with rising gasoline prices and concern that burning fossil fuels is a main driver of climate change. The most common source for biofuel in the U.S. is corn, which is fermented and turned into an alcohol, called ethanol, and added to gasoline and used to power automobiles.

To create biofuel from tobacco, researchers have added genes from algae and cyanobacteria that can process sunlight more efficiently than corn does and convert the sunlight into hydrocarbons via photosynthesis. Hydrocarbons in the engineered tobacco are a form of bio-crude oil, a precursor to fuel. This bio-crude can be stored in the leaves and directly removed and processed to create biofuel, which requires fewer steps than making ethanol, the researchers say.

Because less processing is required, at a commercial scale, biofuel from tobacco could be price competitive with gasoline at $3 to $6 a gallon, said Peggy Lemaux, a University of California-Berkeley biologist working on the Folium team.

The plant has several other distinct advantages, said Lemaux. For one, tobacco doesn’t compete with food crops. It occupies 350,000 acres of land in the U.S., compared to about 95 million for corn, and is cultivated in designated areas where it has been produced for decades. It can be harvested several times a year and produces more biomass than traditional biofuel crops.

Researchers at the University of Kentucky have been planting and machine harvesting tobacco on a two-acre plot to measure the potential yield. The tobacco biofuel has not been used in vehicles yet and would need more financial backing for testing after the three-year Department of Energy grant runs out this year.

But critics say there are lots of problems with the idea. Pesticide pollution and inhumane working conditions are prevalent in the countries where tobacco is grown, said anthropology professor Marty Ortañez of the University Of Colorado, Denver.

“Tobacco is an industry that relies on child labor,” says Ortañez. “We need alternative sources of fuel, but we also need researchers to come up with remedies to end the industry’s behavior that harms soils and communities.”

In May, Human Rights Watch released a report about the dangerous working conditions for children as young as seven who work in U.S. tobacco fields. Many young workers were exposed to pesticides and nicotine that sometimes resulted in acute nicotine poisoning.

Orlando Chambers, managing director of the Kentucky Tobacco Research and Development Center (KTRDC), said that tobacco used for biofuel would be machine harvested, making child labor a non-issue. “Conventional tobacco uses lots of labor, but genetically modified tobacco would be planted closer together and be machine harvested,” Chambers said.


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