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Turning tobacco into fuel


Video transcript:

Peggy Lemauex: So the objective of the FOLIUM project is to use light to convert carbon dioxide and carbon into biofuels directly.  We chose tobacco for several reasons; one is that it's a high biomass plant so it makes a lot of mass.  So if you want to extract oil then the more leaf biomass you have the better.

Unfortunately plants don't use light energy that efficiently.  Just like on highways there are certain areas that traffic gets congested and it doesn't move very well.  Plants networks are the same way.  So if you're trying to make an oil, and there are many different steps, then sometimes at a particular step it gets clogged up and we need to know which one of those steps gets clogged up so we can figure out how to funnel carbon through that pathway more efficiently,

In our strategy we'll do that more directly by simply moving the carbon directly into oils by using processes that already occur in certain algae and cyanobacteria.

Christer Jansson: We want to produce biofuels directly in the leaves. So we want to harvest the leaves and extract the biofuel molecules out of there and use them as drop-in fuels.  We need to find out what additional steps we need to take to optimize production on these high carbon fuels.

Peggy Lemauex: To be able to do that, we take very small pieces of leaf tissue from tobacco. We then infect that piece of leaf tissue with a naturally occurring bacterium that contains the algal gene.  Its able to actually inject the algal gene into tobacco and that gene then becomes a heritable part of the tobacco plant.  So these little pieces of leaf tissue when placed on certain plant hormones will actually form a tiny little plant and that tiny little plant will then contain those algal genes.    Then hopefully it will make the same kind of oils that algae do. 

Christer Jansson: Once we have a plant and a production yield that promises commercial levels within the near future, I think we will be able to attract the interest of the big tobacco companies.  Growing tobacco for cigarette consumption is a dwindling industry and we believe that converting tobacco into a bioenergy crop will also generate a new market for tobacco farmers.  So it will generate new jobs and that's another aspect where we think this will be economically beneficial.