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Meet the US farmers turning their tobacco into airplane fuel

As the demand for tobacco declines in the US, farmers in Virginia are experimenting with turning the crop into viable biofuel

Most of the tobacco growing across 80-acres at Briar View Farms in Callands, Virginia is chosen for its flavour and high nicotine content. The leaves are hand-harvested, flue-cured or dark-fired and sold as smoking or chewing tobacco at premium prices.

One two-acre plot stands apart from the rest, its flavour and nicotine content are irrelevant. The June and October harvests are mechanised and the entire plant, including leaves and stems, are cut with a silage chopper and tossed into metal bins. All of the tobacco plants harvested are turned into biofuel.

On Briar View Farms, first-generation tobacco grower Robert Mills hopes tobacco-based biofuel can spark a profitable future for tobacco growers. “With the uncertainty of tobacco, growers are always looking for new opportunities,” he says.

Over the past four decades, the demand for tobacco in the US has declined. In the 1970s, US farmers grew more than 2bn pounds (900,000 tonnes) of tobacco; by 2012, production dropped to about 800m pounds (360,000 tonnes). The number of tobacco farms declined from 180,000 in the 1980s to just 10,000 in 2012, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since 2009, the US biofuel company Tyton BioEnergy Systems has partnered with agronomists from Virginia Tech and North Carolina State University and tobacco growers to research the potential for turning tobacco into biomass. Mills grows two acres of energy tobacco under contract with Tyton.

“We’re experimenting with varieties that were discarded 50 years ago by traditional tobacco growers because the flavours were poor or the plants didn’t have enough nicotine,” explains Tyton co-founder Peter Majeranowski.

Researchers are pioneering selective breeding techniques and genetic engineering to increase tobacco’s sugar and seed oil content to create a promising source of renewable fuel. The low-nicotine varieties require little maintenance, are inexpensive to grow and thrive where other crops would fail.

“There is a lot of land not being used in tobacco regions that isn’t good for growing row crops,” Majeranowski says. “Instead of growing low-value crops like hay, farmers can earn more revenue per acre growing ‘energy tobacco’.”

Tyton BioEnergy Systems isn’t alone in its quest to turn tobacco into a viable biofuel. In 2013, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in partnership with UC Berkeley and University of Kentucky, received a $4.8m grant from the US Department of Energy to research the potential of tobacco as a biofuel. While in South Africa, Project Solaris, a collaboration between Boeing and South African Airways, is focused on developing aviation biofuel from tobacco crops with a goal of operating its first tobacco-fuelled passenger flight in 2016.

For tobacco producers, the transition is simple: growing energy tobacco is similar to growing smoking tobacco and requires the same equipment and skills; because the harvest is mechanised, it takes less labour to produce a crop.

One acre of tobacco can yield up to 80 wet tons of biomass and all of the byproducts, including sugars, oils and proteins, can be used in products ranging from biofuel and animal feed to soil amendments (nutrients added to improve soil).

“I know we’re not going to get the same returns we get on traditional tobacco but we have a lot less labour so it’s a lot cheaper to produce and it’s more competitive per acre than commodities like corn and soybeans,” says Mills, who started growing tobacco under contract with Tyton in 2011.

The potential to turn tobacco into a different kind of cash crop enticed grower Chris Haskins to sign a contract with Tyton in 2013 to grow 1.5 acres of energy tobacco on his 50-acre farm in Chatham, Virginia.

“Tobacco has been a mainstay for farmers in this area,” Haskins says. “It’s nice to see it getting some positive press and building hope for farmers that it can be used in positive ways.”

While Haskins is hopeful, some tobacco growers are sceptical. These are just pilot projects and energy tobacco is not yet being sold on the open market, so there are no established prices. “I think there’s still a large amount of ‘wait and see if this is for real’ attitude among growers,” says Tim Pfohl, grants program director for the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission.

According to Pfohl, the commission supports opportunities to build new markets for tobacco growers, noting that alternative buyers for tobacco crops will keep growers from being tied to the cigarette manufacturer contract system. The commission gave Tyton BioEnergy Systems a grant of $2.78m in 2012, to further its research.

“The end game for the commission … is new jobs and private investment in tobacco region production facilities,” Pfohl says.

Tyton has 30 acres of research trials under way and, in 2014, created a partner company, Tyton NC Biofuels, pledging $36m to start a tobacco ethanol refinery in Hoke County, North Carolina. As investments increase and bioenergy gets more attention in the media, interest from farmers is growing.

“Now that I’m going into my fourth season as a contract grower, I can see how far we’ve come and I can see tobacco being a viable source of energy for the future,” Mills says. “There is a new generation of farmers that are more progressive and looking for alternatives and this gives farmers opportunities for diversity. Now is the right time to focus on tobacco as a biofuel.”

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