ANNAPOLIS – Tobacco may actually be able to help reduce lung cancer and air pollution — if only cars would start smoking it.
The University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute presented to the Southern Maryland Delegation Friday a way to produce the clean-burning fuel, ethanol, more efficiently by using genetically engineered tobacco.
The research could create an unlikely alliance of tobacco farmers looking for alternative markets for their crop and environmental and health advocates wanting to reduce air pollution. However, the researchers still have a long way to go to convince the two sides to back their efforts, said University of Maryland associate professor Jonathan Arias.
The genetically altered tobacco could be an alternative crop for the 452 farmers who have agreed not to produce the crop as part of the state tobacco buy-out program, according to Arias.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening created the buy-out program in 1999 to rid the state of tobacco growing as part of his anti-smoking campaign.
Under the buyout contract, farmers receive $1 for each pound of tobacco they produced in previous years in exchange for not growing it. However, the contract stipulates only that farmers not produce tobacco for human consumption. They could produce the genetically altered tobacco and still receive the money.
“This is really going to help farmers improve their profit,” Arias said. The research could also drastically reduce the price of producing ethanol, which would be a boost to advocates of the clean-burning fuel, Arias said.
The cleaner E85 gasoline – a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent petroleum – has had trouble building a demand in the United States, and particularly Maryland, as an alternative to pure gasoline.
No stations in Maryland sell the E85 fuel, though it could cut greenhouse gas emissions from cars by 35 percent, according to the American Lung Association.
“[Ethanol] is not going to get more competitive without a change in the process,” said Arias.
Ethanol is made from a sugar created by mixing enzymes with corn, which is then fermented with bacteria into pure ethanol.
The expensive part of the process is creating the enzymes to mix with the corn. Now, they are produced in large metal vats that are very expensive to build, according to Arias. However, tobacco engineered with a heat-resistant gene found in bacteria in hot springs at Yellowstone National Park could produce enzymes capable of working with corn more cheaply and in larger quantities.
“The cost of production is more favorable because you’re using the power of agriculture to make something,” Arias said.
The Southern Maryland Delegation was interested, yet somewhat pessimistic at Friday’s briefing. The University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute wanted $500,000 over the next three years to accelerate their research and make the technology available more quickly to the farmers.
Delegate Van T. Mitchell, D-Charles, said he supported the research, but he thought Arias was speaking to the wrong people.
“I definitely think it’s a good alternative,” Mitchell said. “I think anytime you can create a positive out of a negative it’s a good thing.”
However, Arias needs to convince the Montgomery County delegation, particularly Delegate Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery, chairman of the Economic Matters subcommittee on science and technology, he said.
Arias expected wariness from the legislators.
“I think they have a right to be skeptical,” he said. “I would have been amazed if they just warmly embraced it.”
The genetically engineered tobacco won’t be available for at least three years, Arias said. He still needs to run tests to find out whether the crop is safe for the environment. He doesn’t think there are any potential hazards, but he hasn’t ruled the possibility out yet.
“We don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “I’m not God. We don’t believe there’s any.”
Many farmers are also skeptical of Arias’ research. Jeff Griffith, owner of 85 acres of tobacco, is one of the few open to the idea.
“I’d always like an alternative use for tobacco,” Griffith said. “What’s holding ethanol back right now is it’s too expensive to produce.”
If the new crop did become available, it could help bring ethanol to the East Coast, particularly Southern Maryland and the Southeast United States, where tobacco is grown, said the American Coalition for Ethanol.
“I think having a local industry would definitely help,” said Trevor Guthmiller, a coalition member.
Ethanol is primarily used in the Midwest, where there is an abundance of corn. However, on the East Coast, where there are fewer corn farmers, the petroleum companies, who aren’t anxious to see ethanol’s popularity rise, have more influence, according to ethanol advocates.
Many people aren’t aware many cars can use the cleaner fuel, including, for example, the most popular cars in Ford’s 2001 line.
The closest station to Maryland to sell the fuel is the Navy Exchange Citgo station, 801 S. Joyce Street in Arlington. There the fuel goes for $1.60 a gallon, but there’s been little demand.
The Citgo gets about 10 customers a day for E85, said Barbara Johnson, who works there. The 9,000 gallons of E85 fuel they received in June lasted until January.
Many people don’t know their cars can use E85, or even what E85 is, she said.
“I think the word needs to get out more,” Johnson said. “We could do better.”
It could be a while before the American Lung Association starts spreading the news.
“I can say it would be a better use of tobacco than smoking it,” said Tim Drelach of the American Lung Association. However, he wouldn’t go on the record supporting the crop until he sees the research become a reality.