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Engineered Tobacco Plants Could Produce Biofuel Directly

Although tobacco use and acceptance may have been cut in recent years, tobacco growers could potentially grow the same product, but instead of supplying smokers, end up making their mark in the biofuel revolution in the US.

A multimillion dollar project at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), funded by ARPA-E, is working to engineer tobacco plants that can turn sunlight into fuel molecules, right in their leaves.

“We want to bypass downstream processes like fermentation and produce fuels directly in the crop. After the biomass is crushed, we could extract the hydrocarbon molecules, and crack them into shorter molecules, creating gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel.” – Christer Jansson, Berkeley Lab’s Earth Sciences Division

Researchers are using tobacco because it is well suited to genetic engineering, it can have multiple harvests per year, it doesn’t compete with the food supply, and the plant’s large leaves could potentially store large amounts of fuel.

“LBNL will incorporate traits for hydrocarbon biosynthesis from cyanobacteria and algae, and enhance light utilization and carbon uptake in tobacco, improving the efficiency of photosynthesis so more fuel can be produced in the leaves. The tobacco-generated biofuels can be processed for gasoline, jet fuel, or diesel alternatives. LBNL is also working to optimize methods for planting, cultivating and harvesting tobacco to increase biomass production several-fold over the level of traditional growing techniques.” – ARPA-E

Once the plants, which will be grown in a pilot in Kentucky, are ready to harvest, the leaves will be crushed and the fuel molecules will be extracted and separated.

Researchers hope to create a plant that will produce between 20 to 30% of its dry weight as hydrocarbons, with the potential yields being as high as one million gallons of fuel per 1000 acres of tobacco.

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