Scientists Look to Tobacco as Possible Biofuel

March 26, 2010

With the help of science, an age-old cash crop long the focus of public health debates could be used to help solve the nation's energy crisis by genetically modifying the tobacco leaf for use as a biofuel.

The golden leaf is the latest in a series of sources such as switchgrass and algae being floated as possible biofuels, as Congress and President Barack Obama continue to stress the importance of alternative energy sources.

Scientists believe using tobacco would be beneficial because it would not affect a major U.S. food source, unlike other biofuels made from corn, soybeans and other crops.

But not to worry: people stuck in traffic wouldn't have to worry about second-hand smoke, as the tobacco wouldn't be burned to power vehicles, just used to extract its oils and sugars.

Tobacco is an attractive "energy plant" because it can generate a large amount of oil and sugar more efficiently than other crops, said Vyacheslav Andrianov, a researcher at the Biotechnology Foundation Laboratories at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

Andrianov recently co-wrote a paper on how researchers have found a way to genetically engineer tobacco to increase the oil in the plant's leaves. Researchers found that modifying the plant produced as much as 20 times more oil, according to the report published in the Plant Biotechnology Journal.

"Certainly tobacco could work; any plant is a potential source of biofuel," said Matt Hartwig, a spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association. "I know tobacco farms have been hit hard in recent years and this may be an opportunity for some of those tobacco farmers to produce a crop that could be used in biofuel production."

Commercial use for tobacco as a biofuel may be more than five years away, but tobacco farmers look forward to the possibility, said Andrianov, an assistant professor of cancer biology at the university's Jefferson Medical College.

"There are other crops that can be used and the idea of tobacco is that it's not a food crop," Andrianov said. "I got a lot of response from farmers that would like to grow tobacco in fields that are not being used right now."

According to figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, tobacco production has dropped about 1.5 percent worldwide over the past 10 years. Production has decreased by nearly 39 percent in the U.S. during that same period in part due to the federal buyout program that provided an incentive for tobacco farmers to switch to other crops.

The decrease is largely due to the slump in cigarette demand, which has been hurt by tax increases, health concerns, smoking bans and social stigma. Industry estimates show that the number of cigarettes sold in the U.S. declined about 8 percent in 2009 compared with a year earlier.

In Allen Wooten's corner of tobacco country there used to be nearly 50 farms. Only four growers remain.

"There's definitely a decline," said Wooten, who grows about 150 acres of flue-cured tobacco on his Burgaw, N.C., farm. "Domestically ... it's going down every week, every month. There's all these smoking bans and smoking restrictions."

Wooten said higher costs and lower profits have forced some tobacco farmers to switch to other crops, or close their operations.

While farming tobacco is an expensive task when high-quality leaf is needed for cigarettes, Andrianov said "you can grow tobacco like a weed" when it's being grown for biofuels.

But some farmers say they'd have to look at the economics and processes used to grow tobacco for biofuel to see whether it is a viable option.

"We tend to get excited when we hear about tobacco getting used for something else but so far it's just been on a very limited, niche-type basis," said Roger Quarles, a Kentucky burley tobacco grower and president of the International Tobacco Growers Association.

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