10 December 2014
South African farmers would soon harvest their first crop of energy-rich tobacco plants, an important step towards using the plants to make sustainable aviation biofuel, South African Airways (SAA) and American aeroplane maker Boeing announced yesterday.
SAA and Boeing, along with partners SkyNRG and Sunchem SA, also officially launched Project Solaris, their collaborative effort to develop an aviation biofuel supply chain using a nicotine-free, GMO-free tobacco plant called Solaris.
Company representatives and industry stakeholders visited commercial and community farms in Marble Hall, Limpopo Province, where 50 hectares of Solaris have been planted.
The test crop will be harvested for the first time in December.
Oil from the plant’s seeds may be converted into bio-jet fuel as early as 2015, with a test flight by SAA as soon as practicable.
“SAA continues to work towards becoming the most environmentally sustainable airline in the world and is committed to a better way of conducting business,” said Ian Cruickshank, the airline’s environmental affairs specialist.
It planned to scale up its use of biofuels for its flights to 20-million litres in 2017, before reaching 400-million litres by 2023.
“The impact that the biofuel programme will have on South Africans is astounding: thousands of jobs, mostly in rural areas; new skills and technology; energy security and stability; and macro-economic benefits to South Africa; and, of course, a massive reduction in the amount of CO2 that is emitted into our atmosphere.”
It would also lower the fuel costs of SAA, which contributed between 39% and 41% of the state-owned airline’s total operating costs.
“It is very exciting to see early progress in South Africa towards developing sustainable aviation biofuel from energy-producing tobacco plants,” said J Miguel Santos, the Boeing International managing director for Africa.
“Boeing strongly believes that our aviation biofuel collaboration with South African Airways will benefit the environment and public health while providing new economic opportunities for South Africa’s small farmers.
“This project also positions our valued airline customer to gain a long-term, viable domestic fuel supply and improve South Africa’s national balance of payments.”
The farm visits followed the announcement in August that SAA, Boeing and SkyNRG, an international market leader for bio-jet fuel, based in the Netherlands, were collaborating to make aviation biofuel from the Solaris plant, which was developed and patented by Sunchem Holding, a research and development company based in Italy.
If the test farming in Limpopo is successful, the project will be expanded in South Africa and potentially to other countries. In coming years, emerging technologies are expected to increase aviation biofuel production from the plant’s leaves and stems.
Sustainable aviation biofuel made from Solaris plants can reduce lifecycle carbon emissions by 50% to 75%, ensuring it meets the sustainability threshold set by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB).
Airlines have conducted more than 1 600 passenger flights using aviation biofuel since the fuel was approved for commercial use in 2011.
Boeing is an industry leader in global efforts to develop and commercialise sustainable aviation biofuel.
Project Solaris began in 2012 with two hectares of crop, rising to 11 hectares in 2013, before expanding to the current 50 hectares. The partners aim to expand the project to 30 000 hectares by 2020, leading to the production of 140 000 t of jet fuel, the creation of 50 000 direct jobs and a reduction of 267 kt of CO2 emissions.
They envisage 250 000 hectares by 2025, according to SkyNRG chief technology officer Maarten van Dijk.
SAinfo reporter and Boeing