The just-concluded annual meeting of ARPA-E, an agency founded to nurture interesting energy ideas that may or may not work, featured an exhibition hall with scores of displays staffed by hopeful entrepreneurs.
Many of them seemed to be Ph.D. engineers; in some cases, you needed a Ph.D. yourself to understand what was being presented. But here are three simpler ones that seemed enticing, even if their practicality has yet to be demonstrated.
Some bacteria and algae turn sunlight into oils that can be burned in a car engine or used as raw material at a refinery in place of crude oil. Yet production of reasonable quantities at a reasonable cost has so far been elusive. Tobacco, meanwhile, is easy to grow but has no healthy use. Can the two be merged?
The research consortium Folium (from the Latin word for leaf), which includes the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Kentucky, has taken genes from those types of bacteria and algae and inserted them into tobacco plants. In the first year of work, it produced a crop and then used organic solvents to extract the oils out of the leaves. (Check out the video above.)
Further work on the project, which received $4.8 million from ARPA-E, will determine whether the oils can be used directly as fuel or must go to a refinery. But the tobacco is already yielding one product that could substitute for diesel oil, said Peggy G. Lemaux, a researcher at Berkeley.
Making these oils from tobacco, as opposed to some other crops, would not interfere with food production, Dr. Lemaux noted. And tobacco is already in surplus because of the decline of the cigarette market, so a large infrastructure is already in place, she said.
Researchers have modified the plants so that they have less chlorophyll, the chemical that converts sunlight into stored energy. Normally, chlorophyll is helpful in photosynthesis and makes leaves dark enough that the area beneath them is in…