BY JOHN R. CRANE Work It, SoVa | Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2013 8:18 pm
RINGGOLD — A firm at the Dan River Business Development Center is taking sugar and oil from tobacco to make ethanol and biodiesel.
Peter Majeranowski, president of Tyton BioSciences, said he wants to take a signature Virginia product and turn it into fuel for vehicles. Tobacco can be a high-yield, non-food alternative to corn, which has been used to make ethanol in the Midwest.
“We could do for Virginia what corn has done for the Midwest,” Majeranowski said during an interview at the center Wednesday afternoon.
The sugar makes ethanol and the oil is the main component — with a small amount of methanol — in biodiesel, which contains no sulfur, is clean and has better lubricating qualities than regular diesel, Majeranowski said.
Tyton is in the later stages of development and plans to sell its products to ethanol and biodiesel producers for use in vehicles, Majeranowski said. He hopes to begin selling in 2-3 years, he said.
The time has come for an economical ethanol alternative to corn and soybeans, which have quintupled in price over the last decade, Majeranowski said. The spike poses a challenge for biofuel producers, he said.
“The U.S. has a very urgent need for developing new crops, methods for producing biofuel,” Majeranowski said.
Tyton — which received a $2.7 million grant from the Virginia Tobacco Commission in the spring of 2012 — has been at the center at 300 Ringgold Industrial Parkway for about two years and they set up a lab and a production facility there about eight months ago.
Tobacco has been an economic mainstay in Virginia for 400 years, and Tyton’s venture presents an opportunity to continue making it a viable commodity, said Freddie Wydner, director of agriculture development for Pittsylvania County.
“Anytime you take a crop ... and take an added value to it, it’s always a benefit for the region and for that crop,” Wydner said.
Majeranowski and Tyton Managing Director Iulian Bobe have contracts to receive feedstock from tobacco farmers in Pittsylvania County and are testing ways to extract the most yield from the plant.
They are also experimenting with farming techniques among their local feedstock producers.
But why tobacco?
“It’s a great plant,” Majeranowski said.
Tobacco can grow on marginal lands, thrives in different climates and can be planted in higher density than traditional tobacco, he said. It is commercially viable in more than 100 countries and and Tyton’s plants yield more ethanol and biodiesel than corn and soy, Majeranowski said.
Also, it’s easier to extract sugar from tobacco than from switchgrass, Majeranowski said. Tobacco contains 10 times less lignin, which binds sugar and makes it difficult to extract, than switchgrass.
“You need less energy [with tobacco] to split those sugars,” Bobe said.
Tyton has experimented with per-acre density by planting 9,000 to 150,000 tobacco plants per acre to see what happens, Majeranowski said.
An acre can produce 20-40 tons of tobacco and, according to a sugar/oil analysis, Tyton can yield about 1,000 gallons of ethanol and 300 gallons of biodiesel per acre, Bobe said.
“We’re trying to maximize yield,” Majeranowski said, adding that tobacco can be processed fresh.
“You don’t have to cure it,” he said.
“The mission is for us to graduate and grow in the community,”