Boeing's latest biofuel plan is smoking

Boeing and South African Airways are working on making aviation biofuel out of nicotine-free tobacco.

The two companies announced that South African farmers will soon harvest their first crop of energy-rich tobacco plants, an important step towards using the plants to make sustainable aviation biofuel.

Boeing and SAA, along with partners SkyNRG and Sunchem SA, also officially launched "Project Solaris," their joint effort to develop an aviation biofuel supply chain with a nicotine-free tobacco plant called Solaris. In Limpopo province, company representatives and industry stakeholders visited commercial and community farms where 50ha of Solaris have been planted.

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Oil from the plant's seeds may be converted into bio-jet fuel as early as next year, 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, environmental affairs specialist, SAA Group.

Momentum in alternative fuel to power planes is growing after progress slowed around the time of the global financial crisis.

Last week Boeing completed the world's first flight using "green diesel," a sustainable biofuel that is widely available and used in ground transportation. The company powered its eco-demonstrator 787 flight test plane with a blend of 15 per cent green diesel and 85 per cent petroleum jet fuel in one engine.

Boeing said the sustainable green diesel is made from vegetable oils, waste cooking oil and waste animal fats. Boeing previously found that this fuel is chemically similar to aviation biofuel approved in 2011.

And Virgin Atlantic is continuing work with New Zealand-founded LanzaTech which aims to commercialise a process of converting waste gases into biofuel.

The project in South Africa could create thousands of jobs mostly in rural areas, new skills and technology, energy security and stability and economic benefits to South Africa, said Cruickshank.

J. Miguel Santos, managing director for Africa, Boeing International said that if the test farming in Limpopo was successful, the project would be expanded in South Africa and potentially to other countries.

Sustainable aviation biofuel made from Solaris plants can reduce lifecycle carbon emissions by 50 to 75 per cent, 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.

In addition to its collaboration in Southern Africa, Boeing has active biofuel development projects in the United States, Middle East, Europe, China, Japan, Southeast Asia, Brazil and Australia.