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Thursday, July 18, 2013

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Kumar
ODU Engineer Developing Process to Convert Tobacco Plants to Biofuels

An Old Dominion engineer has been hired by a Virginia-based company to help convert tobacco biomass to advanced biofuels and bioproducts.

Sandeep Kumar, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, has been at ODU since 2010, conducting research in the area of biofuels production from nonfood-based biomass feedstock.

"We're trying to replace petroleum as much as possible, reduce greenhouse gases and make fuels that can be produced locally," Kumar said.

It makes sense that biofuels research in Virginia - part of the "tobacco belt" - would include looking at alternative uses of the tobacco plant, including biofuels. Tyton BioSciences, based near Danville, is one of several Virginia companies exploring new uses for tobacco as the smoking rate declines nationwide.

Tobacco produces a plethora of valuable proteins and chemicals that can be used for a variety of purposes besides carcinogen-producing smoking products - from animal feed, to the pharmaceutical industry, to biofuels.

ODU and Tyton BioSciences have jointly filed two patent applications in the past year around a chemical-free process of turning the tobacco plant into biofuel - one patent involves removing the sugars from the tobacco biomass to create a fuel source, and the second is to process tobacco seeds themselves to extract an oil product and other fuel products.

The company reached out to Kumar because of his research in developing subcritical water-based processes for converting biomass to biofuels. His work focuses on using water as reactant and reaction medium for conduction in chemical reactions, resulting in almost 100 percent utilization of biomass components in the form of biofuels and useful byproducts. The processes, an efficient use of the raw material, leave behind no other waste product.

Tyton BioSciences, which received a grant from the Virginia Tobacco Commission, has awarded $61,000 to support Kumar's research work on tobacco biomass conversion.

In a second-floor laboratory at ODU's Kaufman Hall, Kumar and his graduate students are testing different tobacco plant varieties, and developing novel processes, to produce advanced biofuels and bioproducts as efficiently as possible.

Before earning a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Auburn University, Kumar worked as a chemical engineer in India for 12 years. His passion is to use everyday products and processes to help with the world's energy issues.

"Biomass, a renewable energy source, can produce electricity as well as liquid transportation fuels," he said.

"It can capitalize on the extraordinary solvent properties of water at elevated temperatures for extracting bioproducts and converting biomass to liquid fuels to support green and sustainable chemistry."

"It can capitalize on the extraordinary solvent properties of water at elevated temperatures for extracting bioproducts and converting biomass to liquid fuels to support green and sustainable chemistry."

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