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Bioscience company re-imagining tobacco for new age with machine

Danville’s Tyton BioEnergy Systems unveiled its new cutting-edge extractor for its tobacco-based green chemicals and agricultural products Thursday.

“We have built a world-class machine that can take the tobacco that we have engineered and break it down into sugars, oils, proteins and a by-product called biochar,” Tyton President and Co-founder Peter Majeranowski said at Thursday’s celebration.

Several patents went into the pilot-scale machine that uses water and pressure to process 12 tons of tobacco plants a day. Tyton’s process makes use of the other entire plant: the juice and the cake — or soft interior product. The final products include tobacco oil used as an animal feed additive, biodiesel and biochar also called green coal that can help replenish crop fields.

“This machine is by far better than anything that’s out there right now because it uses water as its active ingredient. It’s a very clean process. It’s a fast process and it’s a continuous process and there’s no waste,” Majeranowski said.

The multiple patents approved and awaiting approval behind the approximately $750,000 machine were created with the help of Old Dominion University. The university’s Sandeep Kumar, an expert in biofuels, assisted the 12-employee company in the process.

This pilot program will be an opportunity for the team to continue research and development. This version of the machine has a range of pressures and temperatures to experiment for the optimal parameters. The final version of the machine would likely be about 10 times bigger than the current pilot size.

Majeranowski estimated that Tyton is another year to two years away from finally bringing its product to the market. Revenue estimates or expectations are not available at this time, but there are identified industries and companies interested in Tyton’s work. Among those parties is Smithfield Foods, which sees potential in using the Tyton product as animal feed.

“Tobacco is the most widely grown non-food crop in the world. It grows in over 125 countries. It’s very adaptable to different climates. It also can grow places where traditional grow crops cannot,” he said. “We view the tobacco plant almost like a mini factory.”

Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Todd Haymore attended the milestone event. He explained that Tyton and other bioscience companies were re-imagining tobacco for the new age. On Wednesday Gov. Terry McAuliffe encouraged universities, organizations and businesses at his Agriculture and Industrial Biotechnology Conference to join in laying the groundwork for this economic evolution.

“The country was founded on leaf tobacco — the Jamestown settlement. Some of the first exports back to mother England were leaf tobacco. Our Founding Fathers grew it. It was used as currency. All the things that have gone on over the course of the 200-plus years today and tobacco is still profitable,” Haymore said.

He added that while tobacco is still a participating player in the economic development competition to make Virginia move from the number two agriculture state to the top state, it is with a changing purpose from the traditional smoking use.

“Traditional leaf tobacco is still an important part of the economy but now we’re going to be looking at future uses, new uses of tobacco,” Haymore said.

Ralph Hogg, the director of the Dan River Business Development Center incubator where Tyton is located, expressed satisfaction at seeing the company excel.

“What they have done since they’ve been here and through some collaboration and work they have taken that concept and grown it exponentially. They’ve come up with more uses for the tobacco than just energy,” Hogg said.

“They delivered on everything they intended to deliver on and more.”

Hogg added that he is especially excited for the upcoming commercialization of the product because of what it will mean for the local farming community. Getting farmers back in the fields and planting tobacco could result in anywhere from 300 to 600 people returning to work, he estimated.

Tyton came to the center in 2012. Typically companies have a three-year lease at the center with hopes that the company will graduate into its own facility. There is a special provision to allow a company to stay for five years.

In Tyton’s case, the company has been allowed to stay two more years. While Majeranowski hopes to stay as long as possible in some capacity whether in pilot production or just research and development, Hogg stated decisions would be made by the board.

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