South African venture to develop sustainable aviation fuels from tobacco plants progresses to next phase
Tobacco farm workers in Marble Hall carry Solaris seedlings from a nursery to the field (photo: Boeing)
Thu 11 Dec 2014 – A South African collaboration to investigate the potential of developing a sustainable jet fuel supply chain from a nicotine-free, energy-rich tobacco plant variety has progressed to the formal launch of Project Solaris. Following the August announcement of the partnership involving Boeing, South African Airways, SkyNRG and Sunchem SA, 50 hectares (123 acres) of the Solaris plant were seeded in September in Marble Hall, Limpopo province, and a first harvest is expected later this month. Oil from the resulting seeds may be converted into sustainable jet fuel as early as next year, with SAA planning to conduct a test flight using the fuel when practicable. If test farming is successful, the project will be expanded elsewhere in South Africa and potentially to other countries.
The project is intended to support SAA’s environmental goals as well as national objectives for economic and rural development, including opportunities for smallholder farmers.
“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, SAA Group Environmental Affairs Specialist. “The impact that the biofuel programme will have on South Africans is astounding – 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 emitted into our atmosphere.”
The Solaris plant has been developed and patented by Italian company Sunchem Holding. When produced in an optimised supply chain, life-cycle reductions in carbon emissions of between 50 and 70 per cent are expected from the biofuel compared to fossil jet fuel, which would exceed the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials’ (RSB) sustainability threshold, claim the partners. In coming years, they say, emerging technologies can be expected to increase aviation biofuel production from the plant’s leaves and stems.
For sustainable aviation biofuel company SkyNRG, which has so far supplied more than 20 airlines worldwide with biofuel sourced mainly from used cooking oil, the Solaris venture is its first operational feedstock project. SkyNRG Chief Technology Officer Maarten van Dijk praised the Dutch government, which secured some of the financing to fund the project, for its support.
Sunchem SA, a joint venture between Sunchem Holding and an international group of investors, has already conducted Solaris cultivation trials in Marble Hall and reports that 11 hectares cultivated in 2013 produced good results. From one hectare, 3 tonnes of oil, 6 tonnes of press cake/animal feed and 45 tonnes of fresh biomass were produced. The company says the tobacco plant can be harvested up to three times a year.
Joost van Lier, Managing Director of Sunchem SA, said Project Solaris would be an opportunity for both commercial and community farmers. “After two years of proving Solaris’ potential in small-scale trials, we’re very excited to see all parts falling into place and start with the next phase.”