SAA hopes to make biofuel from hybrid tobacco plant

South African Airways (SAA) has teamed up with SkyNRG and Boeing to test the viability of producing sustainable aviation biofuel from a tobacco plant.

The project comes in the wake of a decision made last October by Boeing and SAA to work together on developing a sustainable aviation biofuel supply chain in Southern Africa. The companies are currently positioning farmers with small plots of land to grow biofuel feedstocks that won’t harm food supplies, fresh water or land use.

"It's an honour for Boeing to work with South African Airways on a pioneering project to make sustainable jet fuel from an energy-rich tobacco plant," remarked Miguel Santos, managing director for Africa, Boeing International. "South Africa is leading efforts to commercialise a valuable new source of biofuel that can further reduce aviation's environmental footprint and advance the region's economy.”

The tobacco plant in question is a hybrid known as Solaris which is practically nicotine-free. Initially, the jet fuel will come from oil in the plant’s seeds, but Boeing expects there will soon be production from the rest of the plant too, thanks to emerging technologies which could enhance the extraction of useful organic material.

Ian Cruickshank, SAA’s group environmental affairs specialist, said, "By using hybrid tobacco, we can leverage knowledge of tobacco growers in South Africa to grow a marketable biofuel crop without encouraging smoking." This means developing aviation biofuel would also be in line with South Africa’s goals for public health.

Airlines have conducted over 1,500 passenger flights using biofuel since it was approved in 2011. Sustainably produced aviation biofuel reduces carbon emissions by 50%-80% compared with petroleum jet fuel.

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