Producing biofuels from tobacco leaves

Producing biofuels from tobacco leaves

3:53 AM, 7th March 2012
Producing biofuels from tobacco leaves
Christer Jansson, Plant Biochemist, Berkeley Lab.

CALIFORNIA, US: A team of scientists led by a researcher from the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) is exploring a way to produce gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel from the iconic plant of the South. Their goal is to engineer tobacco plants that use energy from sunlight to produce fuel molecules directly in their leaves. The leaves would then be crushed, and the fuel extracted and separated. The scientists estimate that about 1000 acres of tobacco could yield more than one million gallons of fuel.

Tobacco is used as it grows in large tracts throughout US and in more than 100 countries. It generates multiple harvests per year, its large leaves could store a lot of fuel, and it’s amenable to genetic engineering. The project is led by Christer Jansson, Plant Biochemist, Berkeley Lab. The project will be discussed at the 3rd Annual ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit. These include a way to quickly discover materials that capture CO2 from power plant emissions, an innovative method to produce biofuel from microbes.

Jansson and his collaborators tried to create a shortcut in the way in which solar energy is converted to biofuel. One approach to advanced biofuel production requires deconstructing biomass and then using microbes to ferment the resulting sugars into fuel. In contrast, the team hopes to create a plant that grabs CO2 from the air and converts the carbon into a fuel that’s almost ready for the tank.

“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,” said Jansson. To get there, the scientists will work to create tobacco plants that are optimized to take in CO2, harvest sunlight, and produce hydrocarbon molecules.

For the latter, Jansson will start with cyanobacteria genes that encode for enzymes which produce alkane, a type of hydrocarbon. In another approach, Tasios Melis, Biologist, UC Berkeley will conduct a similar exercise with green algae genes that produce isoprenoids, another type of hydrocarbon. These genes will be introduced into tobacco plants grown by scientist. Nuclear magnetic resonance imaging of the leaves by David Wemmer, Chemist, Berkeley Lab will enable the scientists to spot any carbon bottlenecks in the plant and refine their metabolic engineering. Cheryl Kerfeld, Scientist, DOE’s Joint Genome Institute, will search the genomes of hundreds of cyanobacteria species for other alkane-producing genes that could also prove useful.

To increase the plant’s carbon uptake, the team will again turn to cyanobacteria, which are very efficient at grabbing carbonate from the surrounding water and transporting it into the cell. The team hopes to grow their first plant in about 18 months. Their ultimate goal is a plant in which between 20 and 30 per cent of its dry weight is hydrocarbon. Promising plants will be grown in Kentucky in a pilot test overseen by the Kentucky Tobacco Research and Development Centre, whose scientists will explore ways to optimize the plants’ growth and harvest conditions.

© Berkeley Lab News

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