The U.S. Department of Energy has granted more than $1.8 million to a researcher looking at tobacco as a potential fuel source. And if that succeeds within 18 months, almost $2 million more will be given to transfer the technology into giant reed, a fast-growing grass species.

“The goal of our project is to make sure our country is the leader around the world in terms of energy and research,” said Dr. Joshua Yuan, Texas AgriLife Research plant pathologist and lead investigator on the project. “Energy independence and energy costs are all important considerations for our country.”

The project will use tobacco plants initially because of their ease of use in a laboratory. If the technology works in simple tobacco plants, the goal is to transfer the ability to make fuel in a plant into higher producing plants such as the reed. The targeted fuel for the project comes from terpenoids.

Terpenoids occur in all living things. In plants, they are responsible for many common scents and flavors – eucalyptus, cinnamon and ginger, for example. They have been important for humans because of their antibacterial and pharmaceutical properties. But terpenoids are also hydrocarbons – the prime source of combustible fuels — and that speaks volumes to the energy department, the researchers noted.

“We are trying to develop a way to use a plant to directly make hydrocarbon fuel,” said Yuan, who also is assistant professor of plant pathology and microbiology at Texas A&M University in College Station. “We want to make it so that one can easily extract or squeeze the fuel from the plants instead of going to an oil field to take the oil out.”

The grant for Yuan and his team, which begins Feb. 15,  comes from the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy program which, among other things, is charged with focusing on “creative ‘out-of-the-box’ transformational energy research” that is high risk but has the potential to yield “dramatic benefits for the nation,” according to the energy department. Another objective is to help successful research be developed into practical uses.

Under a program called PETRO – Plants Engineered To Replace Oil – Yuan and his colleagues hope to create a tobacco plant that produces and stores high levels of terpene – the fuel derivative of terpenoid – and they plan to do it fast.

“It’s a very quick turnaround to make a plant in 18 months that will yield 2 percent of its dry weight in terpene, while improving the plant’s ability to both store and release the fuel,” Yuan said. “If we can do that, then the next phase is to increase the yield to 20 percent and transfer the technology to the reed.”

Achieving the 20 percent yield in just three years from the start of the research, he said, is what could have a huge impact on the nation’s energy supplies. The giant reed, he believes, could be made to store enough fuel to make the technology economically feasible while not competing with the nation’s cropland.

He envisions an industry in which the reeds would be grown for fuel that could simply be “squeezed out” in almost ready-to-use form.

“We are working on a way to use photosynthesis to produce fuel. So instead of going to oil fields, which are not sustainable, not only can we solve our problem of energy dependence and energy security, but also we will provide a solution for sustainable fuel production,” Yuan said. “And it will be renewable for many years to come.”