Agriculture Berkeley lab develops biofuel from tobacco

Published on February 25th, 2012 | by Tina Casey


Tobacco Goes from Dark Side Villain to Biofuel Hero

February 25th, 2012 by  

Berkeley lab develops biofuel from tobaccoTobacco is about to take center stage as a renewable biofuel crop if new research from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory pans out. That would be quite a turnaround for tobacco, which according to the Centers for Disease Control is responsible for one in every five deaths in the U.S. each year. But hey, if even Darth Vader is capable of redemption, maybe there is hope for tobacco after all.

The Berkeley biofuel breakthrough

Microbial fermentation is a promising new area of research in the field of biofuels, but the Berkeley team is aiming even higher. Biochemist Christer Jansson explains that the Berkeley team’s goal is to skip a few steps by converting the hydrocarbon molecules from tobacco directly into a fuel that is practically ready to use as a drop-in substitute for petroleum fuels:

“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.”

Super-tobacco for biofuel

In order for the process to be cost-effective, the team needs to come up with a strain of tobacco that is highly efficient at harvesting sunlight and converting carbon dioxide to hydrocarbon molecules. They are looking to enhance tobacco with genes from cyanobacteria, a microbe that already has a solid reputation as an energy harvester in the alternative fuels field.

More biofuel research on the tobacco bandwagon

Tobacco has attracted a fair amount of attention of its own among biofuel researchers. The University of Maryland is looking into a tobacco-hosted virus for fuel cells and batteries, for example. Another angle of investigation comes from the University of Central Florida where researcher Henry Daniell is working on a tobacco enzyme to help convert woody biomass to ethanol. The goal is to develop a process that would work on a wide variety of feedstocks, enabling refineries to take advantage of local resources such as orange crop waste in Florida.

A place in the sun for tobacco biofuel

As a non-food biofuel crop, tobacco fits in nicely with President Obama’s national biofuel initiative announced last summer, which involves partnering the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Navy, and the Department of Energy in a push to get more non-food biofuel crops into production.

Tobacco also has a potential advantage over other non-food biofuel crops like miscanthus, switchgrass and camelina. Since a fairly large amount of land is already dedicated to tobacco farming, there would be no need to put new land into production to grow tobacco for biofuel. Though the aforementioned crops are hardy and can be grown on lands not fit for food crops, the farming of new (albeit marginal) land involves issues that need to be addressed including habitat loss, soil loss, and transportation infrastructure.

As far as agricultural land use goes there would be no loss of existing acreage for food production, if mass quantities of tobacco were diverted from the drying shed to the biofuel refinery. Of course, the price of cigarettes would probably skyrocket as a result of diminished domestic supply, but at least that would give the folks at the Centers for Disease Control something to smile about.

Image: Cigarette. License Attribution Some rights reserved by Fried Dough.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • how many pounds of tobacco to equal a gallon of fuel thats the question.Is this a realistic option sure you can do it but is it worth it?

  • Pepole might have to pay more to kill themsevles aka smoke. And this is a bad thing why? As the price goes up, the number of smokers is likely to do down. Fuel plus lower smoking rate, If that’s not a Win-Win situation then I don’t know what is

  • Seams like Tabbaco might be in the same boat as Canabis Sativa [Industrial Hemp], which could be used to make a whole host of useful products, as Roosterglass mentioned, And fuel, but this lumped in with it’s ”evil twin” Marijuana

  • Roostersglass

    Hmmm… turning a tobacco plant into something beneficial! Can we think of another plant that could be used for lots of things (more than fuel) that are beneficial? A plant whose combustion process in its fuel form does not harm our atmosphere? That can also be used to make fiber, building material, and yes even plastic which is biodegradable? One acre of this plant can produce as much paper as four acres of trees; and can replenish in around 100 days instead of 50-100 years of said trees. Oh yeah….Industrial HEMP! And don’t worry folks it doesn’t get you high. I think this may be a better place to put our tax dollars. IMO. :0)

    • Bob_Wallace

      Oh, industrial hemp will get you high but you’ve got to smoke a lot. A lot.
      We used to grow hemp for rope, paper, dollar bill paper – that sort of thing up until the end of WWII. Some of the seed made their way to stream banks in the Midwest and folks a bit older than me had their early experiences from those low-quality plants.

      That we don’t allow industrial hemp is even dumber than our marijuana laws. Even Pat Robertson, right-wing Bible-thumper, has called for marijuana to be treated like we regulate alcohol.

      I don’t know if industrial hemp is the best of all possible plants for fuel/fiber, but leaving it out of consideration is pretty much stupid.

  • OK, it takes 1.5 units of corn ethanol to produce 1 unit of corn ethanol. If we take enough corn mash for 5 units, we end up taking two units away. The balance of 3 is burned (Uh, converted to CO2 and H2O). The industry is not commercially self sustaining (economic enough for competitive markets). Never mind the cold emission aldehydes it emits that politicians and promoters pretend do not exist.

    It does seem tobacco, like corn, is a good candidate for quickly absorbing and converting CO2.

    Pardon the pun, but I am not sure it is not just another pipe dream.

    If tobacco, corn, and algae are so wonderful in converting CO2, then why are they not promoted in raw form for absorbing the excess CO2 that is warming the world? (That, of course, assumes you ignore the reflective characteristics of CO2, and blame it for all the world’s weather.)

  • Kevin Mulvina

    In New York they are banning smoking in Central Park and very soon, even on a public sidewalk. If a single cigarette constitutes enough danger to require a paternalist government bureaucracy to entitle banning smoking out of doors, as a public health agenda, now informs the science. How on earth are we going to convince anyone that this new bio-fuel can be considered safe enough to use? If you consider the exhaust from a single aircraft by volume, produces more smoke on takeoff, than all the cigarettes consumed in world history. How many will die as a consequence of second hand tobacco smoke emitted from every internal combustion engine in America? Or is the convenient lie that no one truly believed, about to be exposed for what it represents. The comfort of a majority at the expense of a minority. A majority who are more than willing to steal from others, while taxing what the experts and fanatics represent as an addiction.

    It will be fun to watch as the new age reefer madness, comes to it’s inevitable conclusion, along with many political careers as the “me too” parrots are exposed for what they really represent.

    It was always about the money.

    • Tropical Day

      Just think about the poor jet engines forced to take up tobacco products from birth. Is GE behind this? Just think, a jet engine forced to inhale tobacco continuously for hours, chain smoking day and night. They would be cancer ridden in no time, death at a very early age. GE would make a fortune in the process! I bet they will spike the nicotine in the fuel so the jets will refuse to run on any other bio fuel. Think of the smell. Do you really want everyone to smell like they spent the night in a redneck dive bar.

      How could we! Where is our moral imperative. Maybe GE is not behind this. There good people building precision equipment. No, my bets are on big tobacco. They had a great run in north america but the numbers are in decline brought on by science and education. The rest of the world is bound to follow.

      Big tobacco has been in search for the next victim? Dog’s? Cat’s? No, no person would subject a pet to certain death. No, society would send you to prison for subjecting a pet to tobacco. Engines, jet engines! They are the perfect victims. Kings of consumption.

      Just kidding…

      It’s a great step in making affordable bio fuels. Can tobacco be grown in an environmentally friendly manner.

      • lol 😀

        • Kevin Mulvina

          They have been chanting the new verses of the Koran for over a decade “There is no safe level of tobacco smoke” Even though this international high drama ad agency hymn, affords no useful information, it has risen to the top of the fanatical hit parade’s top ten and held that position for years now.

          Will we be forcing the Airport employees to inhale the dreaded smoke, forcing them to go home to their children every night laden with the smell of third hand tobacco smoke? with no concern for their health risks? Who will protect the children?

          It does seem logical that bartenders are more valuable than baggage handlers and De-icing crews, but selling this to the left of left politically correct, might spark up world war three. At very least among the ad agencies who create the six o’clock news every evening. The use of tobacco is sacrilege and the heathens who would dare afford a living to tobacco farmers, deserve to be drawn and quartered. So says our beloved Father and government always knows what is best for the children, of all ages.

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