Scientists are touting tobacco as the risk-free biofuel capable of weaning us off fossil fuels. In a bid to improve fuel production and reduce its cost, experiments are already underway to genetically modify tobacco so it is ready for usage by 2014.
At the University of Berkeley in California, researchers use algae to incorporate the necessary traits for heightened hydrocarbon bio-synthesis. Treating leaves with organic solvents, which enhance light utilization and carbon uptake, they can extract fuel directly from the tobacco.
As biologist, Anastasios Melis, explains: “We have modified the tobacco leaves so that they accumulate oils inside the air spaces within the leaf. As part of the protocol that we developed, we’re removing all lipophilic products, including the chlorophylls and the other chlorophyll compounds.”
But there is another, vital, advantage to using tobacco rather than first generation biofuels, like sugar cane or soybean. As many of the crops burnt for biofuels are also used for food, there is subsequently less to eat. This has caused global food prices to rocket in recent years, pushing millions into hunger. Ambitious EU-set energy targets – to triple biofuel usage by 2020 – have also led to a neo-colonial land-grab across the developing world, as companies have been given financial incentives to snap up fertile land.
For researcher, Peggy Lemaux, the move towards tobacco was a way out of this devastating cycle: “Tobacco was the perfect option because it’s not something people eat. The infrastructure for growing it, harvesting it, producing it, is all there so we thought it was an excellent choice to make fuels.”
Environmentalists, scientists, and politicians all wait in earnest to see whether this latest version of the ‘green’ fuel’, initially celebrated as the panacea to our climate change ills, is not just another red herring.