Biotech firm working to develop tobacco as biofuel crop

Global Business

A U.S biotechnology company is pioneering tobacco as a renewable biofuel crop. Unlike most bio-tech firms, Tyton BioEnergy Systems is not working in a science park close to a university. Instead it’s chosen to locate at the heart of traditional tobacco county in the state of Virginia. 

CCTV America’s Correspondent Daniel Ryntjes reported this story from Danville, Virginia.

The techniques for producing smoking tobacco in Danville, Virginia were developed more than two centuries ago. But increased global competition and declining cigarette sales have hurt this area’s economy.  Tyton BioEnergy Systems is modifying tobacco plants to produce a biofuel crop.

With traditional tobacco, the farmers take great care with the leaves and dry them in special curing barns at the end of the season. But for biofuels, the plant is cut down in its prime when the sugar content is at its highest and processed fresh without curing. The firm uses the plants’ genetic code to boost its sugar and oil content. The sugar is used to make ethanol, a mandated additive in U.S gasoline. The plant’s oil is extracted to make biodiesel.

“Energy tobacco does not exist. Nobody is making ethanol from tobacco. So in many ways this is a new thing for everybody,” Dr Julian Bobe, Chief Technology Officer, Tyton BioEnergy Systems said.

They work alongside local farmers, including Bob Harris who has grown a one acre plot for the team to work on. “I’ve got to know that it can be grown on a commercial basis on a large scale. If it can be done that way, and I can make a profit out of it, comparable with where I’m at now, then I’m all for it,” he said.

“We believe that we start local, we grow regional, national and maybe one day international. I think that there is a tremendous potential for this,” Dr. Bobe added.

Given that tobacco grows in more than 120 countries worldwide, the team at Tyton BioEnergy Systems believes that making tobacco a viable bio fuel crop with farmers here in Virginia could have major global benefits.