Farm Progress

Squalene is commonly used an adjuvant for vaccines or an emollient for cosmetics. The market for squalene is booming, particularly for vaccines, with demand far outstripping supply.

John Hart, Associate Editor

June 17, 2015

5 Min Read
<p>Squalene was one of two new uses for tobacco highlighted at the Ag Biotech Entrepreneurial Showcase May 19 at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Another company showcased its plans to use tobacco as an alternative to corn for ethanol production.</p>

Squalene is a funny sounding compound that most people have never heard of, but it has the potential to be a new market for tobacco. A company called SynShark is taking steps to turn tobacco into the product.

Squalene is commonly used an adjuvant for vaccines or an emollient for cosmetics. The market for squalene is booming, particularly for vaccines, with demand far outstripping supply, according to Jason Ornstein, SynShark’s executive director.

“Our skin makes squalene, but our skin stops making it at such a high rate by the age of 25. Cosmetic companies began to examine squalene and realized it has a very strong capability to stop free radicals both on our skin and inside of our bodies,” Ornstein said at the Ag Biotech Entrepreneurial Showcase May 19 at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

Squalene was one of two new uses for tobacco highlighted at the forum. Another company showcased its plans to use tobacco as an alternative to corn for ethanol production.

Right now, squalene is made mostly from shark livers. “Inside the shark liver, a high amount of a long chain of hydrocarbons is produced that allows deep sea sharks to stay deep in the ocean,” Ornstein explained.

It is these hydrocarbons that are used to make squalene. Ornstein said the market is currently valued at $93 million per year and is expected to grow to $300 million in the short term. “We simply can’t get enough squalene to provide market demand,” Ornstein added.

Because of rising demand, by 2019 the supply of sharks used for squalene will have to go from the current 5 million to 30 million. Ornstein said that the 30 million number is untenable and an alternative for shark livers must be found which is where tobacco fits in.

The technology to make squalene from tobacco was developed by Dr. Joshua Yuan at Texas A&M University, who designed a unique plant pathway to convert genetically modified tobacco plants to yield the long hydrocarbon chains needed to make squalene.

J. Patrick Short, a tobacco famer near Greensboro, has contracted with SynShark to produce one acre of tobacco for squalene use this year. Ornstein said the goal is for this pilot plot to lead to rapid acreage expansion for renewable squalene in the years to come.

Ornstein said SynShark plans to contract with other tobacco farmers in the years ahead as demand for tobacco-based squalene grows. He said squalene should make for a very profitable market for tobacco farmers with company data showing tobacco farmers who currently gross $3,300 per acre should be able to gross $14,000 per acre with squalene production.

“This is quite a big opportunity for a tobacco farmer,” Ornstein said.

Tobacco as ethanol

Squalene wasn’t the only new use for tobacco featured at the forum. Peter Majeranowski, president and co-founder of Tyton BioEnergy Systems, explained how his company plans to repurpose tobacco to produce ethanol and other renewable fuels.

Majeranowski said tobacco is a good crop for biofuels because it is a dense plant that grows quickly and doesn’t need a lot of micronutrients that food crops require. “Tobacco grows in soil that is low in organic matter so it is very adaptable to different climates,” he added.

A key benefit of tobacco, Majeranowski stressed, is that it is low in lignin, the glue that holds the plant together.  Because tobacco is low in lignin, it is easier to pull out the sugars and oils needed to produce biofuels, he explained.

To process the tobacco plant to produce ethanol, Tyton came up with a proprietary extraction technology that works like a pressure cooker. Majeranowski explained that the pressure cooker uses water to separate the sugars and oils in the tobacco plant.

“The result is that we have sugars that are more competitive than corn and allows you to grow this crop outside the traditional Corn Belt,” he said.  “This is good for corn ethanol plants because it gives them an alternative source that works in their existing infrastructure.”

Tyton is contracting with farmers to produce tobacco for renewable fuel. Majeranowski said it is a good fit for tobacco farmers because the company will buy tobacco at two cuttings, the first cutting at midseason and the final cut at the end of the season, which will provide good cash flow.

The tobacco will be processed by Tyton’s extractor that will separate the sugars and oils   of the tobacco plant for ethanol. The process also produces biochar which is a “green coal” and a great soil amendment and protein which can be used for animal feed, according to Majeranowski.

“Our first market is the U.S. ethanol industry,” he said.  “About 10 percent of fuel consumed has ethanol in it but 99 percent of that comes from corn. We’re trying to find an alternative for those corn ethanol producers.  A lot of them want alternatives because when you are handcuffed to just one crop, volatility in that crop price can really hurt your production.”

The other benefit is that Tyton believes tobacco can be cheaper than corn for ethanol plants, he added.

Majeranowski said Tyton’s first partner company is an ethanol plant in Raeford, N.C. that produces 55 million gallons of corn ethanol.  The company will re-start operations this summer and plans to process tobacco for sugars starting next year using Tyton’s piot-scale extractor. “This will serve as a demonstration platform for us so we can demonstrate to the other 200 factories out there how we can use tobacco in the process,” he said.

Tyton plans to start in North Carolina, then expand to Virginia and across the southern United States to ethanol plants that are farthest away from the corn belt. “That allows us to get our critical mass before we start targeting those plants that are located within the corn belt,” Majeranowski said.

Over the next two years, the company plans to continue to test the technology and get an industrial design for its extractor.  “After that, we are going to build our first industrial size extractor and work on our farmer acquisition plan and our customer acquisition plan,” he said.

About the Author(s)

John Hart

Associate Editor, Southeast Farm Press

John Hart is associate editor of Southeast Farm Press, responsible for coverage in the Carolinas and Virginia. He is based in Raleigh, N.C.

Prior to joining Southeast Farm Press, John was director of news services for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, D.C. He also has experience as an energy journalist. For nine years, John was the owner, editor and publisher of The Rice World, a monthly publication serving the U.S. rice industry.  John also worked in public relations for the USA Rice Council in Houston, Texas and the Cotton Board in Memphis, Tenn. He also has experience as a farm and general assignments reporter for the Monroe, La. News-Star.

John is a native of Lake Charles, La. and is a  graduate of the LSU School of Journalism in Baton Rouge.  At LSU, he served on the staff of The Daily Reveille.

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