Try flying in a biofuel-powered plane

The first plane in Africa to run on biofuels took off the ground on July 15 this year. On-board were 300 passengers traveling from Johannesburg to Cape Town, South Africa. Although there was nothing peculiar with the flight, the jet fuel was a special one of its kind on this Boeing 737-800s that is operated by Mango and South African Airways (SAA):

the jet was using a high-energy nicotine-free blend of 30% aviation biofuel produced from tobacco plants cultivated by farmers in the South Africa’s Limpopo Province.

It seems that tobacco plants have more to offer than just its end-product “cigarettes”, which is viewed in negative limelight due to the damaging health effects of smoking. The plants can be grown for other benefits, helping to sustain an establised industry.

The flight on the Boeing 737-800s coincided with Boeing’s 100th anniversary and centennial celebrations, and highlighted the poduction of local and sustainable jet fuel by Project Solaris, which is a partnership between Sunchem SA, SkyNRG fuel specialists.

This flight proved to the government that the project is now worth scaling up and also put confidence in the hands of potential investors in this initiative. This project whilst reducing carbon dioxide emissions, will also help reduce the need for expensive oil that is also subject to price volatility, but will also create local jobs according to an SAA environmental specialist.

The fuel was made using plants from a biochemist firm Sunchem’s Solaris plants, refined by AltAir Fuels and supplied by SkyNRG fuel experts. The project to grow the plant was certified last year by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB), a body that issues standards for sustainability practice, and the plant is also a better biofuel source than other biofuel feedstock.

“It [Tobacco] produces several harvests per year and a large amount of oil per hectare compared to other crops,” RSB Executive Director Rolf Hogan told CNN.

The partnership between Boeing and SAA to produce sustainable fuel started in 2013 and Project Solaris has been the main focus towards that goal. 50 hectares were planted in Marble Hall, Limpopo since 2014 after initial trials on 11 hectares.

But growing crops for biofuels has always received a backlash from world food bodies that argue the trend can contribute to deforestation and food shortage since the focus on commercial biofuel feedstock could see many land owners convert from food production to biofuel production. To manage the situation, Project Solaris has been focusing on under-utilized land and has put into place long-term plans to ensure farmers tap into the local and global demand for feedstock without causing bad effects on food production, fresh water sources and land use.

“Having to undergo a systematic process of evaluating the social and environmental ramifications of this development as prescribed by the RSB has allowed us to feel confident in promoting Solaris, not only as a financially viable crop for farmers in the region, but also one that will not affect food security or lead to environmental degradation,” said Sunchem SA Managing Director Joost van Lier.

Biofuel for half of SAA fleet

Aviation biofuels emit 50-80% lower carbons than fossil fuels, and globally this is not the first airline to run jets on biofuel - different airlines around the globe have run more than 2,500 passenger flights on biofuels. Boeing has active biofuel projects in other countries: Brazil, China, Japan, Australia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Japan, and U.S. And looks to develop commercially sustainable fuels of this nature. However, the Boeing-SAA project seems timely because South Africa Airways aims to have half of all of its jet fleets using biofuels by 2023.

However, the project has a dream beyond aviation industry: the plants - meaning the factories - will help offset production of carbon dioxide at the extent of about 267 kilotonnes per year by 2020 in a time - that’s small but not so small for the world that is in dire need of curbing global carbon emissions from 1.5 percent down to save ourselves from climate change harm.

Biofuels for other industries as well

The Solaris factories in SA could also provide biodiesel for cars and the plastics industry. It will also render other by-products such as cake for animal feed and biogas. The project also seeks to spread to South Africa's neighbors Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe in future. The project is about to go to testing in Malawi, which produces a lot of tobacco. It demonstrates that the aviation industry can also act further to develop fossil fuel alternatives that support local environment and community in Africa. Project Solaris is also important in the South African tobacco industry as farmers have been affected by lowering demand for tobacco as smoking prevalence has been decreasing in the country. Project Solaris wants to plant the crop on 250,000 hectares by 2025. If this succeeds, farmers will have something to celebrate about.

Undoubtedly so, the project is a special of its kind. It could not only help lower down emissions and provide an alternative use of tobacco plant, but could also advance many airlines’ goal to provide low-cost flights and boost profitability.