Smoking Out Potential

Repurposing tobacco for biofuels
By Erin Voegele | April 27, 2012

Many people associate tobacco with health problems, but that could change. A team of researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is developing an innovative biofuels production technique that could yield huge quantities of renewable, drop-in biofuels. If successful, tobacco could one day be associated with a healthier environment. 

According to LBNL, the work focuses on transferring a hydrocarbon-synthesizing gene from cyanobacteria into a tobacco plant. The resulting plants would be able to produce fuel molecules within their leaves. Rather than undergoing a typical biorefining conversion process, the leaves would simply have to be crushed to extract the fuel.

The $4.9 million project is being funded by the U.S. DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which is designed to support potentially game-changing, high-risk, high-reward innovation. Christer Jansson, a plant biochemist with the LBNL’s Earth Sciences Division, is leading the effort. “We want to bypass downstream processes like fermentation and produce fuels directly in the crop,” says Jansson. “After the biomass is crushed, we could extract the hydrocarbon molecules, and crack them into shorter molecules, creating gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel.”

There are several reasons tobacco is an attractive crop for this type of research: it’s already grown in large-scale operations within more than 100 countries, it can be harvested several times a year, features large leaves to efficiently store a lot of fuel, and is amenable to genetic engineering efforts. The research team estimates that 1,000 acres of the genetically modified crop could yield 1 million gallons of fuel on an annual basis. The team anticipates growing the first plant in 18 months.

—Erin Voegele