Some of the world’s biggest airlines are involved in a revolution: A tobacco plant that could provide a much more sustainable and alternative jet engine fuel. Solaris is not only more environmentally friendly but it might just help to boost South Africa’s rural development too.
Biofuels have been found to work just as efficiently as fossil fuels but are derived from a much more sustainable and organic source, including algae, plants and agricultural waste. Helping to reduce pollution, it is estimated biofuels could reduce carbon emissions by up to 80% in the future.
The US aerospace giant, Boeing, South African Airways (SAA) and the Amsterdam based biofuel company, SkyNRG, have been in talks since last year to develop a greener solution to aviation fuel for South Africa. Signing a Memorandum of Understanding in October last year, SAA and Boeing agreed to implement a sustainable biofuel for use across South Africa, which would make it a first for the continent.
In a statement last month, J Miguel Santos, Managing Director for Boeing Africa, said: “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. South Africa is leading efforts to commercialize a valuable new source of biofuel that can further reduce aviation’s environmental footprint and advance the region’s economy.”
THE SOLARIS PLANT
The hybrid tobacco plant, Solaris, has the potential to create this alternative and much more sustainable jet engine fuel. It is already being produced by SkyNRG and can be grown by South African farmers for biofuel rather than its traditional and more commercial use. Maarten van Dijk, Chief Technology Officer at SkyNRG, said: “[We] strongly believe in the potential of successfully rolling out Solaris in the southern African region to power sustainable fuels that are also affordable.”
Presently oil can only be taken from Solaris seeds, which contain almost no nicotine. It is hoped in the future that the whole plant can be used for biofuel means. Ian Cruickshank, SAA’s group environmental affairs specialist explains: “By using hybrid tobacco, we can leverage knowledge of tobacco growers in South Africa to grow a marketable biofuel crop without encouraging smoking.”
The environmental benefits concerning biofuels are no doubt appealing to the aviation industry. The International Air Transport Association estimate that the airline industry contributes 2% of manmade CO2 emissions on a global scale and so, in 2009, it announced that the industry must cap these emissions and improve efficiency by at least 1.5% every year for the next decade.
South Africa alone, is aiming to reduce its carbon emissions by 34% by 2020 and up to 42% by 2025 with the aim to use home grown biofuel within the next few years.
Although there are many more established biofuels currently on the market, tobacco remains a prominent choice for a number of reasons. Sourcing biofuels locally is a much more environmentally friendly choice helping to minimize transportation costs and ensure a much lower carbon footprint. Tobacco also helps to ensure problems between land and water use are not raised. The debate between fuel and food remains an ongoing challenge in the development of biofuels.
And whilst the South African biofuel industry has faced challenges in the past, largely due to concerns for food production and the increase in food prices, both Boeing and SAA want to ensure a biofuel is developed that will benefit the rural community, not endanger it.
A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
The Solaris plant has the potential to grow in several regions where traditional tobacco is currently cultivated, including parts of Asia, Europe and Latin America. “Test farming of the plants, which are effectively nicotine-free, is under way in South Africa, with biofuel production expected from large and small farms in the next few years,” both companies said in a statement last month. It is hoped that by October 2015,South African fuel producers will begin the process by blending petrol and diesel with biofuels to save having to rely on imported fuels.
The new sustainable jet fuel alternative has already caused waves within the airline industry, with dozens of international airlines having already tried and tested biofuels. Boeing currently have biofuel projects running across six continents in a bid to help the development.
In 2012 alone, it is estimated that the world’s airlines spent $209 billion on fuel which is a staggering 33% of overall operating costs. Despite environmental and rural development benefits, some figures have shown that biofuels aren’t in fact, much cheaper than fossil fuels but advocates have confirmed that expanding the supply of biofuels would help in reducing these costs.
With airline fuel expenditure at an all-time high and worries for dangerously expanding carbon footprints, this new breed of tobacco plant might just be the answer for the future of greener flying.