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Tobacco biofuel to solve energy/ environment crisis?

Baccy-burner cars, boilers to make nonsense of smoking ban

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Boffins in Philadelphia, America have come up with a radical new plan for biofuels. Rather than the cars of tomorrow running on various forms of alcohol, sunflower oil, algae etc, the scientists propose that they should instead be fuelled by burning tobacco.

"Tobacco is very attractive as a biofuel because the idea is to use plants that aren't used in food production," says Dr Vyacheslav Andrianov of Thomas Jefferson University.

"We have found ways to genetically engineer the plants so that their leaves express more oil. In some instances, the modified plants produced 20-fold more oil in the leaves."

It seems that typical baccy leaves contain 1.7 percent to 4 percent of oil as a proportion of dry weight. One gene modification tried out by Andrianov and his colleagues gave 6.8 percent of oil per dry weight.

Production of oil in the leaves is seen as the big trick. Tobacco seed oil has already been tried out in diesel engines, but baccy doesn't produce enough seeds to be useful - just 600kg per acre. However it is a "high-biomass" plant overall, once the leaves are included.

"Based on these data, tobacco represents an attractive and promising 'energy plant' platform, and could also serve as a model for the utilization of other high-biomass plants for biofuel production," says Andrianov, whose paper is soon to be published in the Plant Biotechnology Journal.

Baccy power would seem likely to suffer from the same issues as any other "first generation" or crop biofuel, however, despite Andrianov's optimism. Biofuels typically require the use of huge amounts of farmland to supply energy on the scale required by modern industrial civilisation, and this would still be the case with tobacco. Food might not be taken directly out of the market to make fuel, as happens with corn-based alcohols, but in the event of baccy power becoming a mainstream idea one might expect farmland to be switched from food production to tobacco. This would lead to starvation and deforestation just as ordinary biofuels do.

This is why many people keen to see biofuels succeed - for instance the aviation industry - prefer to focus on "second generation" feedstocks such as algae or jatropha, which could perhaps be grown in unused areas such as seas or deserts. Tobacco certainly doesn't fall into this class, however.

Tobacco farmers might still find the idea of an alternative, subsidised biofuel market pleasing in today's smoking-ban-swept world, though, just as US corn farmers and their powerful political allies do. And the nicotine-enslaved victims of the smoking bans would perhaps be on-side too, pleased at the idea of every car, train, home boiler etc puffing out clouds of delicious carcinogenic smoke. ®

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