mercredi 17 septembre 2008

Si on brûlait le tabac qui reste?

For Italian scientist, tobacco means cleaner air

  • Reuters The Guardian
  • , Friday June 13 2008
By Gilles Castonguay
MILAN, June 13 (Reuters) - He might not smoke, but an Italian geneticist is convinced that tobacco can make the world a cleaner place by helping to reduce air pollution.
After years of research, Corrado Fogher and his team has turned oil from the plant's seeds into a biofuel to run everything from water boilers to power generators.
With this discovery, his biotechnology firm, Plantechno Srl, is contributing to a growing body of scientific research into clean and renewable sources of energy to reduce reliance on fossil fuels such as oil and coal.
"I think it holds a lot of promise," Fogher, the firm's founder and research director, told Reuters by phone on Friday.
With the rise in oil and gasoline prices and growing concern about harmful emissions from cars and trucks, biofuels made from corn and other plants have become a fashionable alternative.
Biofuels have also become controversial in light of soaring food prices, with critics calling on farmers to focus on filling stomachs rather than fuel tanks.
One of the advantages of Plantechno's variant of the tobacco plant is that it would eliminate the need for farmers to displace food crops from their best land to grow it.
"The tobacco plant can grow on marginal land where you can't grow any other plants," said Fogher, 57.
Similar initiatives are being taken elsewhere in the world to avoid having farmers switch to biofuel crops.
In Norway, newsprint maker Norske Skogindustrier ASA is joining forestry companies to make diesel fuel from woody biomass. In the United States, Algenol Biofuels Inc. plans to make ethanol from algae.
There is also a push towards cellulosic ethanol, which comes from inedible products like wood chips, corn cobs and grasses.
But the challenge is to justify the cost of producing tobacco oil and other biofuels, according to Davide Tabarelli, head of Nomisma Energia, an Italian think tank in Bologna.
"The problem with all of these biofuels is to produce enough oil to make it economically viable," he said.
Compared with other biofuel crops, tobacco is cheaper to grow and produces bigger yields, according to Fogher. For every hectare (2.5 acres) on which it is grown, two tonnes of oil can be extracted from its seeds, about twice as much as rape or soy.
As for the energy it produces, its net calorific value is 2.5 percent higher than those from other biofuel crops.
The oil can be used by itself for stationary motors like a power generator. As a biodiesel for vehicles, it has to be mixed with palm oil.
Based in Casalmaggiore, a town near Parma where prosciutto ham is made, Plantechno will let engineers test the fuel in October by running a one-megawatt hospital power generator.
It will also create a firm called SunSeed to commercialise the seeds with the help of private equity investors.
Fogher hopes to expand the oil's uses, perhaps into lubricants, once Plantechno gets permission from Italian authorities to grow genetically modified versions of the plant.
Tobacco's potential as a biofuel was discovered by accident while Fogher's team was working on other attributes of the plant for the treatment of Gaucher disease, a genetic disorder.
Asked whether he consumed tobacco in a more usual way, Fogher said he did not smoke.
"Tobacco is very toxic." (Editing by Peter Blackburn)

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