By John Vlahakis

Creating biodiesel from plants is one of the hottest alternative fuel efforts for weening us from fossil fuels.  Biodiesel is being harvested from corn, grass, algae, sugar cane, and even beets.  Now there is a new effort to try it with tobacco leaves.  Perhaps this could be a future incentive to use more of the crop for a healthier use instead of producing cigarettes.   A group of scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab is testing the limits of genetic engineering to make the widely grown tobacco plant a carrier for hydrocarbons.  Scientists will be at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit this week to discuss the project, which received a $4.8 million grant over three years. The grant fits ARPA-E’s mission of funding research that is high-risk but with a potential for a breakthrough.  The biotech engineers are looking for ways to change the plants DNA to absorb more CO2 for photosynthesis, and to increase the plants hydrocarbon production to produce more mass that then translates into more biofuel.  The genetic effort underway will test to see if genes from other organisms, like algae, can be added to help increase the hydrocarbon production of the tobacco plant.  The goal is to produce a version of tobacco where between 20 percent and 30 percent of its dry weight will be hydrocarbons. They are currently working with the Kentucky Tobacco Research on a pilot test and hope to have their first plant in about 18 months.

 

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