Scientists Seeking New Use for Tobacco
Think tobacco and what comes to mind—Cigarettes? Cigars? Lung disease? Litigation?
Here’s a new thought: Vehicle fuels.
Christer Jansson, a senior staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in northern California, is leading a research team to produce hydrocarbons from tobacco leaves, molecules similar to those in fossil fuels. A $4.9 million grant from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is helping underwrite the effort.
The team has 16 months to demonstrate whether the process works, at which point DOE either approves further work, leading to commercialization, or shuts it down and Jansson’s team returns any remaining money.
“If it works, and I hope it will, I believe it will, it could turn into something very important for the United States, the tobacco industry and for the use of biofuels for national security,” Jansson said. “It’s high risk, but a high reward project.”
Jansson’s project is one of 60 supported by a new round of ARPA-E grants, valued in total at $156 million.
The potential benefits of his research are enormous. They include the scientific, in finding a new crop-source for biofuel; the economic boost of providing farmers a new market for a product that has a declining domestic demand; and the social good of encouraging tobacco growers to sell more of their crop for something other than smoking products, helping drive down the incidence of emphysema and other respiratory illnesses.
There’s another advantage. Unlike corn and sorghum, which can also be transformed into fuel products, tobacco has no role in the food chain. Corn, for example, has a multitude of uses vital to the agriculture industry, as food, feedstock for animals and a product for export.
Further, tobacco is plentiful, with multiple harvests a year. Nearly 7 million tons are produced throughout the world in a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The top producers are China (39.6 percent), India (8.3), Brazil (7.0) and the United States (4.6), where varieties are grown in 21 states, according to the Department of Agriculture.
Jansson’s research has drawn the attention of the Kentucky Tobacco Research and Development Center, which studies the development of new uses of tobacco, like for pharmaceuticals. With Kentucky ranked as the country’s second-leading tobacco producing state behind North Carolina, the center helps tobacco farmers maximize the value of their crop at a time cigarette smoking in the United States continues to decline.
“We haven’t approached the tobacco industry ourselves,” Jansson said. “Once we get started and we get nearer to commercialization, the Kentucky center will be very helpful.”
For now, the goal of Jansson’s team is to produce enough hydrocarbon molecules from the tobacco leaf to convince the Department of Energy that the project is viable. The researchers have 16 months.
“That’s a very aggressive time schedule, which is the aim to support high-risk projects,” Jansson said. “If we don’t come close, it’s up to ARPA-E to see whether we can keep going. But we’ve very confident we can produce the molecules we’re looking for.”