Danville company proposes new use for tobacco

DANVILLE - Imagine if area farmers could once again profitably grow tobacco and in far greater quantities than ever before.burleytobacco

If a new company at Dan River Business Development Center has its way, that will happen — but the product will be used to create biofuels instead of cigarettes.

Peter Majeranowski, a founder and managing director of Tyton BioSciences, said years of development have gone into the product, which will be genetically modified to produce “both ethanol and biodiesel at yields that far surpass the traditional crops of corn and soy.”

And, because corn and soy are also food crops, using tobacco to create the same products can alleviate the complaints that food prices are rising because of demand for crops as fuel, Majeranowski said.

Smoking-grade tobacco was much more difficult to grow than the crop his company is developing, Majeranowski said.

Farmers will be able to plant between 80,000 to 100,000 plants per acre, rather than the average 6,000 plants per acre of smoking-grade tobacco. It can be mechanically harvested and can be processed “green,” as opposing to going through the drying process that smoking-grade tobacco goes through. Tobacco fields for biofuels also can yield two to three harvests a year, Majeranowski said.

“We can chop it close to the ground, and it grows back,” Majeranowski said. “We don’t have to worry about flavor, just how many green leaves and stems we can get per acre.”

The seeds are still being tested, but the company has successfully processed the genetically altered plants to extract sugars for ethanol and oil for biodiesel fuel; the process has a patent pending on it, Majeranowski said.

During processing, sugar for ethanol and oil for biofuel are extracted, both in larger quantities than comparable amounts of soy or corn, Majeranowski said.

According to Majeranowski, the group was encouraged by Gov. Bob McDonnell’s office to visit Danville, and Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Todd P. Haymore recommended they talk to the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research about their project.

Majeranowski said he met with Liam Leightley, executive director at the institute, and Barry Flinn, who directs the Institute for Sustainable and Renewable Resource, and was impressed with the facility. The new Sustainable Energy Technology Center at the institute also was one of the reasons that Tyton BioSciences chose Danville for its new home.

“It’s just five minutes from our office,” Majeranowski said. “We will collaborate on certain parts of our research; it’s a great fit for us.”

Next week, the company hopes to learn whether it will get a $2.2 million grant from the Tobacco Commission, which, combined with about $2 million of its own investment, will get the new seeds closer to the production stage.

Majeranowski said: “We have committed to stay in Danville beyond the potential Tobacco Commission grant period because of Danville’s rich tobacco history and growing know-how, as well as its new research facilities.

“We are also excited to help re-ignite the agricultural community with a new tobacco crop that can help the country break its addiction to foreign energy.”

By Times-Dispatch

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