Oil from Tobacco Leaves

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL)
FOLIUM - Installation of Hydrocarbon Accumulating Pathways in Tobacco Leaves
Graphic of LBNL's technology
ARPA-E Award: 
Berkeley, CA
Project Term: 
01/01/2012 to 01/26/2015
Project Status: 
Technical Categories: 
Critical Need: 
Biofuels offer renewable alternatives to petroleum-based fuels that reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to nearly zero. However, traditional biofuels production is limited not only by the small amount of solar energy that plants convert through photosynthesis into biological materials, but also by inefficient processes for converting these biological materials into fuels. Farm-ready, non-food crops are needed that produce fuels or fuel-like precursors at significantly lower costs with significantly higher productivity. To make biofuels cost-competitive with petroleum-based fuels, biofuels production costs must be cut in half.
Project Innovation + Advantages: 
LBNL is modifying tobacco to enable it to directly produce fuel molecules in its leaves for use as a biofuel. Tobacco is a good crop for biofuels production because it is an outstanding biomass crop, has a long history of cultivation, does not compete with the national food supply, and is highly responsive to genetic manipulation. LBNL will incorporate traits for hydrocarbon biosynthesis from cyanobacteria and algae, and enhance light utilization and carbon uptake in tobacco, improving the efficiency of photosynthesis so more fuel can be produced in the leaves. The tobacco-generated biofuels can be processed for gasoline, jet fuel, or diesel alternatives. LBNL is also working to optimize methods for planting, cultivating and harvesting tobacco to increase biomass production several-fold over the level of traditional growing techniques.
Impact Summary: 
If successful, LBNL's project would genetically engineer tobacco to enable it to produce oil directly from its leaves. This could enable large scale production of oils, which could eventually begin to replace petroleum-based fuels.
The transportation sector accounts for nearly all of our petroleum imports. Providing an advanced biofuels alternative to petroleum will allow the U.S. to reduce these imports, improving our energy independence.
More than 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. come from the transportation sector. Because plants naturally absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, the level of greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels is less than half that of petroleum fuels.
The U.S. imports nearly $1 billion in petroleum each day, accounting for the single largest factor in our trade balance with the rest of the world. Biofuels can be produced domestically, allowing us to keep more dollars at home.
ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Jonathan Burbaum
Project Contact: 
Dr. Christer Jansson
University Regents of California