First flight imminent as South African tobacco crop to jet biofuel project earns RSB sustainability approval
Mon 14 Sep 2015 – The South African ‘Project Solaris’ initiative that is developing an energy-rich tobacco crop for use as a feedstock for producing aviation biofuel has been awarded certification by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB). The project, formally launched in late 2014, has involved RSB from the start so as to ensure its standards have been incorporated into all aspects of the supply chain to ensure environmental and social sustainability. The patented nicotine-free and GMO-free Solaris oil seed is owned by Italian company Sunchem Holdings, and the other main partners in project – Boeing, SkyNRG and South African Airways (SAA) – are planning to use first quantities of jet biofuel produced from the crop within the next few months on a flight between Johannesburg and Cape Town. Sunchem is also planning to launch a similar supply chain in Italy to produce sustainable jet biofuel.
Sunchem South Africa (SA), a joint venture between Sunchem Holdings and an international group of investors, started cultivation trials of its seeds in 2013 on 11 hectares of land in the Limpopo province of South Africa. The tobacco plant is capable of being harvested up to three times a year and has shown to yield significant quantities of oil, which led to 50 hectares (123 acres) being seeded in September 2014.
However, admitted Sunchem SA Managing Director Joost van Lier, developing a biofuel crop in what is described as South Africa’s ‘breadbasket’ province had drawn the company into the food versus fuel debate. But, he said: “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.”
Added RSB Executive Director Rolf Hogan: “Project Solaris has demonstrated it can deliver sustainability on the ground in line with the RSB’s global standard. This is the result of a serious commitment to working with local stakeholders, rural development and reducing greenhouse gases while safeguarding the Limpopo’s unique natural environment.”
SAA’s Group Environmental Specialist, Ian Cruickshank, said the airline was a proud RSB member and subscribed to the environmental and social sustainability principles of the RSB standard. “This certification ensures that future fuels contribute to reductions in CO2 and are environmentally sustainable and contribute social and economic benefits to our rural economy where it is needed most,” he commented.
The RSB certification would be a key factor in the development process of Project Solaris, according to Sunchem Holding Managing Director Sergio Tomassini. “RSB believed in our technology and gave us the right advice to improve it during our scale-up programme,” he said.
“By receiving RSB certification, Project Solaris is achieving an important milestone for itself and for the aviation industry itself,” said Maarten van Dijk, CEO of SkyNRG. The Amsterdam-based jet biofuel specialist will lead commercialisation of the Solaris product and will also supply South African Airways with the biofuel.
As well as producing aviation biofuel, Tomassini said a deal was close to supplying a South African shipping company with marine diesel made from Solaris oil. Other by-products from the tobacco plant biomass include cake for animal feed and biogas. As a tobacco producing country, Malawi also presented opportunities and having found a local partner and government support, he expected to start local tests of Solaris with a view to future production of aviation biofuel and the by-products in the country.
Sunchem also has ambitions for the crop in southern Brazil, said Tomassini, and Boeing is a premium sponsor and promoter of the Solaris technology worldwide. He said Sunchem is launching a new sustainable value chain with Alitalia, Boeing Italy and Italian multinational oil and gas company Eni, and the company was also exploring opportunities in eastern Europe. Sunchem has received a grant through the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme to help develop and optimise its seed-to-oil process.
“We are unique because of our patent and seed, and we can really create competitive advantages to all participants in the supply chain, especially farmers,” Tomassini told GreenAir.