Less than six months after Boeing and South African Airways (SAA) announced their plans to turn “energy tobacco” into sustainable aviation biofuel, farmers in South Africa’s Limpopo province are harvesting their first crop of a nicotine-free, energy-rich tobacco plant.
About 120 acres (50 hectares) of the tobacco variety, which is called Solaris, are already growing on large commercial farms and small community farms near the town of Marble Hall in northeastern South Africa.
Boeing and SAA, along with SkyNRG of the Netherlands and Sunchem SA, recently brought media and officials to the agricultural region to see the thriving plants and talk with farmers before the first harvest on portions of their land. The companies also launched Project Solaris, their collaborative effort to develop an aviation biofuel supply chain in South Africa with the plant.
Boeing has worked with SAA for more than a year to develop a biofuel strategy that supports the airline’s environmental goals and South Africa’s economic development goals. Oil from the plant’s seeds will be converted into jet fuel this year, with an eventual test flight by SAA.
Sustainable aviation biofuel will help SAA to become “the world’s most environmentally sustainable airline,” among other benefits, according to Ian Cruickshank, Environmental Affairs Specialist, SAA Group. By 2023, the airline wants to use biofuel produced to supply 50 percent – more than 100 million gallons (about 400 million liters) – of its jet fuel needs at Johannesburg’s international airport, Cruickshank added.
“The impact that the biofuel program will have on South Africans is astounding,” Cruickshank said, including “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.”
Boeing, too, is excited about the project’s value to SAA and South African communities, said J. Miguel Santos, director of international sales for Commercial Airplanes in Africa and 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,” said Santos. “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.”
Supporting skills development in the region, Boeing is helping to fund local efforts to train farmers with small plots of land to grow and market Solaris plants. 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.
Sustainably produced biofuel can reduce carbon emissions by 50 to 80 percent, according to U.S. government studies. Airlines have conducted more than 1,600 passenger flights using sustainable aviation biofuel since the fuel was approved for commercial use in 2011.