By Denice Thibodeau, Danville Register & Bee
Finding alternative uses for tobacco plants brought Tyton BioEnergy Systems to the Danville area a little more than four years ago — and now the company has announced it has found a way to extract oils from the plants to create non-fossil jet fuel.
At its headquarters in the Dan River Business Development Center, Tyton BioEnergy Systems is all about technology and science, where the plants have been under various experimental projects in an industrial processing lab, a microbiology lab and a greenhouse.
The microbiology lab looks a lot like any biology or chemistry lab in a college would look, while the industrial processing lab has an astonishing array of equipment that looks a little like a big, very clean, moonshine still and giant pressure cookers.
But the process actually starts outside, with whole tobacco plants that can grow as high as 15 feet tall being fed into a hammermill to shred the plant into small pieces.
Once chopped up, the plants travel through ducts to the processing lab, where the equipment separates out the various elements of the plants — a sugar syrup, oil, proteins and bio char.
"There is zero waste," Peter Majeranowski, the company's president, said. "That's a big advantage."
The difference between Tyton's process and more traditional biomass processing techniques is that there is no pretreatment required and far fewer processing steps, Connor Hartman, chief operating officer and vice president of business development, said.
The greenhouse has rows of tobacco plants, but not the type of plants people in the Dan River Region are used to seeing. They are constantly being monitored and engineered to improve certain traits and to eliminate others.
The plants have no nicotine, are not grown to taste good as a smoking product and are disease resistant. In a growing season on a traditional tobacco farm in this region, there is one crop a year and plants are kept trimmed; farmers who are growing plants for Tyton get two crops per year, cutting back the plants in the summer and letting them regrow for harvest before the first frost, Hartman said.
Different types of tobacco plants are bred for different uses — for instance, an acre of tobacco raised for high-sugar output can produce three times more sugar than an acre of corn, making it an excellent source for ethanol, Hartman said.
"We're learning more and more (about the plant) as we go," Majeranowski said. "It's an amazing plant . it adapts to different soils all over the world."
Majeranowski said he first became aware of the need for alternative fuels as a U.S. Naval officer boarding ships that were smuggling oil out of Iraq.
He learned the U.S. military is the world's biggest consumer of jet fuel and began thinking there had to be a way to produce an alternate fuel — a "tough nut to crack," Majeranowski said, because jet fuel has so many use-specific properties, such as a need for it to work at very high altitudes.
While the company was always interested in seeing tobacco plants used differently, the jet fuel possibilities were a surprise.
"We didn't expect to find this," Majeranowski said. "But we have outstanding scientists."
The company chose the Danville area because "we needed to work with farmers who knew what they were doing" with tobacco, Majeranowski said — and Hartman said the project will be an opportunity for the farming, industrial and biotech industries to grow.
The project has moved from experimental to a pilot program. In time, as it becomes possible to bring it to full commercial capability, partnerships will be formed to bring it to market, Hartman said.
Majeranowski is outspoken about how pleased he is with the company's latest discovery.
"It's been a really rewarding and fun process so far," Majeranowski said.