Are Beer and Cigarettes the New Bioenergy?

Don Draper and fellow “Mad Men” would likely be horrified, but alcohol and tobacco — long joined at the hip by chain smokers and heavy drinkers — are countering the U.S.’ current aversion to excess by rebranding themselves as new sources of bioenergy.

Tobacco, which has suffered declining market share and price yields for decades in the U.S., could reinvent itself as a genetically-altered biomass for production of biodiesel, bio-gasoline, or bio-jet fuels.

The spirits industry, meanwhile, is already using their industrial beer and liquor byproducts to generate bioenergy as a means of offsetting operational costs.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is spending $4.9 million on a three-year program that aims to produce gasoline, diesel and jetfuel from tobacco. The DOE, along with partners at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Kentucky in Lexington, envision producing a genetically-engineered tobacco plant that has almost a third of its dry weight in hydrocarbons.

The group has been working on the project for more than a year and by early 2015, hopes to have engineered the plants to produce biofuels efficiently and directly in their leaves. By some estimates, a thousand acres of genetically-engineered tobacco could yield more than a million gallons of biofuel. That’s in contrast to the normal arduous task of biofuel production involving microbial reduction of sugars into biofuel.

“Algae already makes alkane and turpenoid oils, used for biofuels like biodiesel or bio-jet,” said Peggy Lemaux, a plant microbial biologist at the University of California at Berkeley and a principal investigator on the ARPA-E project. “Thus, by installing algal genes in tobacco leaf tissue, we can make these oils in tobacco and extract them directly from the green leaf biomass in a straightforward process.” 

The aim is to engineer existing tobacco plants for more efficient carbon uptake so that photosynthesis will trigger the creation of these much sought-after hydrocarbon oils.

“We have produced these oils in tobacco,” said Lemaux. “But we are still not at the levels that we need to be able to compete with ethanol. But we know that can [happen].”

Historically grown in wide neat rows to ensure the highest quality product not the most quantity, farmers who wanted to grow tobacco for biofuels would flip that model.

“We could produce quite a bit of tonnage per acre if we didn’t plant it in [the] wide rows of today,” said Michael Moore, a tobacco extension agronomist at the University of Georgia’s Agricultural Extension Service, who notes this year the state will harvest 11,000 acres of tobacco. “We’re harvesting only the leaves with a statewide average of 2,400 pounds per acre. But we could vary our plant population from the current 7,000 plants per acre to 200,000 per acre easily enough.”

Tobacco farmers are already very supportive of this project, says Lemaux, who adds that with the exception of China, conventional tobacco markets are diminishing. She says tobacco also offers growers more flexibility in planting than switchgrass or miscanthus, noting that from year to year, tobacco farmers can switch out tobacco for another crop.

“The farmer will get the [new] seeds from the University of Kentucky,” said Lemaux. “Planting may be a little closer than normal, but the harvesting will be similar. We will extract [oil] from green biomass, so we won’t be drying it.”

Even so, tobacco’s future as a biofuel is not just whether it can compete with ethanol, but also whether it can compete with growers who are already growing and harvesting their crops for conventional tobacco companies.

Lemaux says that one reason ARPA-E chose tobacco for a project is precisely because, unlike corn grown for ethanol, tobacco has never been a food crop.

With tobacco, Lemaux says, there will never be a dilemma over whether to use it for food or for fuel, as has been the case with corn. She even predicts that within in 20 years, tobacco grown for dipping, chewing or smoking could be supplanted by tobacco grown solely as a biofuel source.

Alcohol and Bioenergy

Where there’s tobacco, there is also usually beer. In this instance, however, the brewing industry is further ahead in creating new sources of bioenergy.

Magic Hat Brewing Company is a case in point.

This South Burlington, Vt. brewery, which makes about 200,000 barrels of beer per year, is now using a large part of its spent waste to create biogas. Although the average brewery generates five parts of waste for every one part of beer, Magic Hat has a two-to-one waste-to-product ratio. As Eric Fitch, a mechanical engineer and the CEO and founder of Purpose Energy in Arlington, Ma., explains, up until the company began its bioenergy endeavor, most of the waste byproduct was trucked off site for use as livestock feed or for pet food.

Since June 2011, an anaerobic digester designed and manufactured by Purpose Energy has been supplying the brewery with 220 kW of biogas-generated electricity.

“We have three different bioreactors integrated into one tank at Magic Hat,” said Fitch. “Solids go into the first tank and break down into soluble sugars and acids. Then those sugars and acids go into the second and third reactors and are converted into methane biogas.”

Fitch says his company’s system takes Magic Hat’s waste and reduces the cost of byproduct remediation by over 60 percent. The methane gas that is produced is, in turn, run into a power plant that makes heat and electricity used in the brewery. As a result, Fitch estimates that magic hat has replaced about a third of its fossil fuel-derived electricity with renewable biogas.

Such concepts are also familiar to the Alaskan Brewing Company.

At 1,000 miles north of Seattle in the far-flung south-east Alaska panhandle, there’s little or no livestock on the Alexander archipelago. Thus, for nearly two decades, the Juneau-based Alaskan Brewing Company has shipped its spent grain to Pacific Northwest farmers and ranchers to use primarily as feed for their cattle.

But since February of this year, the craft brewer, which distributes throughout 14 western states including Alaska, has been using its dried spent wheat, malt and barley grain to fire the brewery’s boiler kettles, says Andy Kline, communications manager at the Alaskan Brewing Company.

As a result, the brewery, which produces 140,000 barrels of beer annually, projects its 4,500 tons of annual spent grain fuel will save over 1.5 million gallons of fuel oil over the next 10 years, while reducing the company’s fuel oil consumption by 70 percent.

It’s likely that we’ll see more brewers figure out that recycling their waste and using it as energy helps to bring down production costs. But tobacco as biofuel may be a harder sell to farmers used to growing the crop for generations of smokers. The idea might just need the marketing smarts of a latter-day Don Draper. 

Lead image: Alcohol and tobacco via Shutterstock

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