Published On: 2022-09-26
green tobacco leaves, dried tobacco leaves, a male scientist, and a text: From leaves to labs - a brief story of nicotine production

Nicotine is an omnipresent substance. Millions of people consume it on a daily basis, on every continent. Some do it for pleasure, some for medical reasons, and others on social occasions. Not everybody knows, however, that pure nicotine – the raw material used by manufacturers – is a highly dangerous substance, which may bring fatal consequences if handled improperly. From this article, you will learn what are nicotine’s origins, what danger may result from contact with it, and how it is obtained. Below you will find the agenda, that will help you find the information you may be looking for.

Nicotine production process – table of contents:

I. What is pure nicotine?

Pure nicotine is a substance, that occurs, in the greatest amount, and is made out of tobacco plant. Its highest concentration is found in the leaves. The most popular species to produce cigarettes or source nicotine is grown in the world Nicotiana tabacum, however, other species, native to South America, are cultivated as well, for example, Nicotiana rustica, Nicotiana alata, or Lobelia Inflata.

Although Nicotiana rustica leaves contain up to 3 times more nicotine than Nicotiana tabacum, it places second, when it comes to popularity. The reason behind it is Nicotiana tabacum’s smoother taste.

What is worth mentioning, most people have contact with nicotine on a daily basis. Trace amounts of the substance are present in tomatoes, eggplants, or peppers. However, in Chemnovatic offer exemplary products directly related to pure nicotine are: PureNic 99+ or NicSalts.

Is nicotine made naturally?

What is worth mentioning, nicotine is made naturally and made out of tobacco plants. However, synthetic nicotine is also on the market and it is tobacco-free, made in laboratories. It became popular, due to the fact it’s tobacco-free. Consequently, it wasn’t subject to various tobacco-product regulations. You can read more about synthetic nicotine here.

The history of nicotine’s name and how did it arrive in Europe?

Nicotiana tabacum, nicotine’s main source, comes from South America, where indigenous people rolled its leaves, burnt, and inhaled the fumes. The original use of tobacco was for religious and medical purposes. However, the name – nicotine – comes from Jean Nicot de Villemain, a French diplomat and a scholar. He brought the plant to France in 1560. Back in that time, it was believed, that smoking tobacco prevents illnesses and the plague. However, for nicotine to be discovered as an individual substance, mankind had to wait another 300 years. Responsible for this were two German chemists – Wilhelm Heinrich Posselt and Karol Ludwig Reimann – who isolated the substance from Nicotiana tabacum leaves. Moreover, by the end of the XIX century nicotine’s empirical formula was described (1843, Louis-Henri-Frederic Melsens), the structure was discovered (1893, Adolf Pinner) and in 1904 pure nicotine was first synthesized by a Swiss – Ame Pictet.

Although in the past many believed, that tobacco prevents illnesses and cures various conditions, chemists who extracted pure nicotine found it as poison. From today’s perspective, it’s hard to deny the Germans’ statement or at least the danger the substance carries. More, however, on nicotine toxicity later in this article.

world map, an arrow from Brasil to France, a dot marking Paris and a text: 1560 Jean Nicot de Villemain

Characteristics and features

Now, let’s look at characteristics of pure nicotine. It is an oily liquid with transparent-to-yellow-to-brown colour and hygroscopic properties. Depending on the solvent used to acquire nicotine and the time of exposure to oxygen, temperature, and light the colour may differ. As for solvents, there are various, that may come to use when acquiring nicotine: water below 60 oC, chloroform, petroleum ether, isooctane, or benzene.

II. First steps of the nicotine production

Sourcing tobacco

Before pure nicotine is extracted, one has to grow the tobacco, which blooms from late June to September in the northern hemisphere and from September to February in the southern hemisphere. It grows on all continents and requires fertile and fairly moist soils.

Basically, tobacco can grow in any place, where there is warmth and at least 100 free-from-frost nights, as cold and too much water makes the plants thin and weak. Additionally, the range of temperature for tobacco to grow efficiently varies depending on the region, however, it differs from 18-25 oC to 20-30 oC. As mentioned earlier, there are various tobacco plants cultivated and the main causes behind it are different types requirements and the reasons tobacco is sourced for.

The most popular one is Nicotiana tabacum which has various groups of leaves:

  • Lugs: the lowermost 4-5 leaves
  • Cutter: middle leaves
  • Upper-stalk: leaf and tip

What is worth noting, the higher the leaves, the higher the nicotine concentration in them.

The world’s nicotine demand is mostly supplied by China. In 2020 this country was leading, when it comes to sourcing tobacco, with over 2 610 000 tons of tobacco per year. Second, came India with over 800 000 tons, and was followed by Brasil with over 760 000 tons. After that, there was a big gap, as the 4th Zimbabwe produced more than 250 000 tons and 5th United States over 210 000 tons. Additionally, China and India, are also the two biggest nicotine extract manufacturers in the world.

Types of tobacco

The genus nicotiana has around 70 species, and each of them can be a source of multiple tobacco types. For example, multiple types of tobacco can be grown just from Nicotiana tabacum when one brings seeds to grow in a different place, with different factors – soils, weather, or harvest period. All of these factors influence the final tobacco properties, which include leaves’ size and colour, nicotine and sugar content, and consequently the taste. Additionally, each type can have various subtypes.

Below, we have described 3 of the most popular tobacco types, that are Oriental Tobacco, Virginia Tobacco, and Burley Tobacco.

Virginia Tobacco

Virginia tobacco has its roots in the decade of the XVII century. Then, the seeds of Nicotiana Tabacum were brought to the State of Virginia.

Depending on the time of harvest, the colour of the leaves may be light yellowish with high sugar content (early harvest) or darker, closer to orange with smaller sugar content.

Virginia tobacco can be flue-cured or air-cured. However, when flue-cured and the temperature is too high, the sugar turns into acid, consequently altering the taste that turns sharper and more irritating.

Virginia tobacco became popular as pipe tobacco and is one of, if not the most, popular tobacco types worldwide. Aside from the United States, Virginia tobacco is grown in Argentina, Brazil, China, and India.

Burley Tobacco

Burley tobacco is a bit younger than Virginia. It dates back to the second half of the XIX century when its seeds were brought to the State of Ohio.

Burley tobacco has white to yellowish leaves that turn darker brown during curing. Additionally, while curing, the existing sugar vanishes, which influences the taste that is dry. Moreover, the higher the leaf, the bolder the taste.

Burley tobacco often blends with other types, i.e., the aforementioned Virginia. Its role is to lighten the final taste of the mix. Moreover, compared to Virginia tobacco, Burley is also used as pipe tobacco and has almost the same content of nicotine, but thicker leaves. Moreover, this type of tobacco is grown in Argentina, Brazil, the United States, and Italy.

Oriental Tobacco

Oriental tobacco, also called Turkish tobacco, is grown in the Middle East, the Balkans, and Greece.

Compared to Virginia tobacco, it has much smaller leaves, but there are even three times more of them. Additionally, the nicotine content is smaller in Oriental tobacco compared to the previous two types.

During curing, some of the sugar remains in the Oriental tobacco leaves, which provides a sweet taste. Moreover, Oriental tobacco is often added to blends to bring a spicy note.

Drying tobacco leaves

When tobacco leaves are collected, they need to be dried. There are various methods, that apply to various species:

  • Air-curing: tobacco leaves are hung in ventilated, unheated sheds. They remain there until the colour turns light-brown or brown. By the end of the process, they no longer contain sugar.
  • Flue cure: heat enters the dryer through the pipes connected to a furnace placed outside. The colour range is from yellow to orange-red. Tobacco dried this way contains sugar.
  • Sun-curing: leaves are left for up to 30 days in the sun. Color varies from yellow to brown, and tobacco contains a lot of sugar. Sun-curing is the most popular among the 4 mentioned methods.<