Making biofuels out of crops such as sugar cane and soya beans to reduce oil consumption is a subject of sharp controversy. Campaigners claim it raises the cost of food at a time when millions are starving. While the campaigners’ calculations are dismissed as simplistic by the industry, biofuel’s green halo is now tarnished. In September, after lobbying from Oxfam and other NGOs, the European Parliament capped the share of biofuels made from food crops at 6 per cent of the EU’s transport energy demand by 2020.
With the drawbacks of first generation biofuels now clear, researchers looking for non-food sources of biomass that can be cheaply converted into fuel are focusing on the tobacco plant. The plant does not naturally produce much oil, but researchers in California have genetically modified it to incorporate oil-making algae in the leaves. Scientists have been looking for ways to produce commercial quantities of oil from these micro-organisms, but so far harvesting the oil has proved difficult.
Peggy Lemaux, an expert in the genetic engineering of crop plants at the University of California, Berkeley, says tobacco was an obvious choice to make biofuel, in place of sugar cane or soya beans. ‘It’s not something people eat. The infrastructure of growing it, harvesting it, producing it is all there.’ If the experiment works, tobacco will produce oil from sunlight and carbon dioxide, and do away with the costly processing required to make what are known as ‘first generation’ biofuels. But much more research is needed before the evil weed can be reborn as the low carbon fuel of the future.