Once celebrated as an economic mainstay, the tobacco industry has been hard hit by health concerns, bans, lawsuits and the social stigma of cigarette smoking.
Now, UC researchers are testing the plant’s potential to be genetically modified in order to produce socially acceptable bio-fuels to power airplanes, cars and trucks. Preliminary results are encouraging, but more research is required before tobacco can be commercially farmed as an energy crop to meet the demand for alternatives to fossil fuels.
The effort hinges on the introduction of genes, primarily from algae that turn sunlight into oil, into the cells of tobacco leaves. The researchers hope that the modified cells can be used to grow mature plants that make the same kind of oils that algae do.
“We can then use organic solvents to extract the oils out of the leaves,” said UC Cooperative Extension specialist Peggy Lemaux, a researcher in the project that includes Anastasios Melis, a professor in the department of plant and microbial biology at UC Berkeley. “The oils would be further refined into bio-fuels.”
“The beauty of our proposal,” Melis said, “is that carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere as a byproduct of combustion of these bio-fuels would be captured again by tobacco plants and, through the natural process of photosynthesis, be converted back into fuel.”
The research, which is being conducted in cooperation with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Kentucky, is funded with a three-year $4.8-million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, which funds high-risk, high-reward research projects to find potential alternatives to fossil fuels.
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