Good use can be found for tobacco, scientist believes

March 09, 1995|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Staff Writer

A University of Maryland scientist has found a benign and potentially lucrative new use for what the 18th century author Robert Burton called "that hellish, devilish and damned tobacco."

Forget smoking, chewing or snorting the wicked weed. Dr. Anthony von Fraunhofer says we may one day use a tobacco extract as an additive in antifreeze or paint to prevent corrosion.

The plant, he says, contains powerful yet environmentally harmless compounds that block oxidation. They might one day be employed to protect coolant pipes in power plants or to stop autos from collapsing in a cloud of rust.

"Who would have thought of doing it, frankly?" asked Dr. von Fraunhofer, a professor in the university's dental school.

A tobacco-based rust inhibitor may sound like "an off-the-wall idea," conceded the British-born scientist. "But if you look at the chemistry, it's far from off the wall."

Dr. von Fraunhofer, 54, was named director of biomaterials science at the dental school at the University of Maryland at Baltimore last summer. A chemist and metallurgist, he has studied the corrosion of metals in the mouth -- where saliva forms a medium as caustic as dilute sea water -- for the past 25 years.

Dr. von Fraunhofer first looked at the rust-fighting properties of tobacco about three years ago, while director of the Laboratory of Molecular and Materials Science at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. A technician there mentioned that nitrosamines were among the 2,600 compounds found in the plant.

"As soon as I heard the word nitrosamines I knew there was something that would inhibit corrosion in metal," said Dr. von Fraunhofer, a member of Britain's Royal Society of Chemistry who has written or co-authored numerous scholarly books.

So he bought some Red Man chewing tobacco, percolated water through it and extracted some alkaloids, fatty acids and other candidate compounds. He added them to a highly corrosive salt solution, placed a piece of steel in the bath and measured how fast the steel corroded.

"Sure enough, it worked," he said. The compounds slowed the oxidation of the steel. In fact, he suspects that smoking may help prevent the corrosion of fillings and metal bridgework in the mouth -- although it obviously has other, negative health effects.

To his surprise, he found that the extracts fought corrosion more effectively than many commonly used inhibitors, which contain heavy metals that persist in the environment. "These things are not nice compounds," he noted. "They're environmentally toxic."

The scientist joined with an entrepreneur, Victor Pollak, to form a company, Inhibitex Inc., which is located in Salt Lake City. "He's the businessman," Dr. von Fraunhofer said. "I'm just a simple scientist."

Inhibitex applied for a patent on using tobacco extracts to curtail corrosion. Because the research was originally done at Louisville, that university would hold the patent. But Inhibitex has an exclusive license on the idea.

If Inhibitex can turn that idea into a commercially viable product, it could tap a huge market.

A spokesman for the National Association of Corrosion Engineers, in Houston, said that rust costs U.S. industry the equivalent of 5 percent of the nation's gross national product each year. That's almost $350 billion.

Few new rust inhibitors have appeared in recent decades, industry specialists said. But a cheap, effective inhibitor that didn't harm the environment could find a large market -- as long as its price was competitive with existing products. Mr. Pollak, the chairman of Inhibitex, declined to discuss the potential cost of a tobacco-based inhibitor.

Three years ago, Dr. von Fraunhofer applied to the tobacco industry for support for his research. "They just said no," said the scientist, who once smoked a pack of cigarettes a day but now settles for an occasional cigar. "They said, 'Our interest is in selling tobacco products.' "

Tom Lauria, a spokesman for the Tobacco Institute, noted that over the years other researchers have studied using tobacco-derived products in genetic engineering, as a pesticide and as a protein source. None of these uses has interested cigarette manufacturers.

"The industry is primarily focused on tobacco as something that delivers enjoyment," Mr. Lauria said.

At the Smokeless Tobacco Council, a scientific review panel decided that the scientist's idea had "merit," but the council declined to pay for the research. A spokesman said the New York-based group has a policy of only supporting studies of the health effects of smokeless tobacco.

Tobacco is the nation's sixth biggest cash crop, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture department. An economist who studies the tobacco market said farmers, who now harvest 2.5 billion pounds annually, would be ecstatic if a major new market opened up.

Dr. von Fraunhofer said Inhibitex is looking for a large company to help develop and market the idea. But Inhibitex hasn't lined one up yet.

Brian Hatt, a chemical engineer who is the president of Inhibitex, cautioned that the firm's tobacco-based rust fighter may not be the best one for all applications.

"This is not a panacea," he said. "There are some well-defined markets where it will perform better than the products now on the market," such as the cooling pipes of power plants.

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