Produced from high-energy tobacco crops, SAA undertakes Africa’s first sustainable biofuel commercial flight

Produced from high-energy tobacco crops, SAA undertakes Africa’s first sustainable biofuel commercial flight | Project Solaris

Fri 15 July 2016 – Africa’s first sustainable biofuel commercial flight took place today when a South African Airways (SAA) Boeing 737-800 flying from Johannesburg to Cape Town used a jet fuel produced from nicotine-free tobacco plants grown in the Limpopo region of South Africa under the Solaris project. The initiative is a collaboration involving SAA, Boeing, SkyNRG, WWF-SA and Sunchem, which is the developer of the novel energy tobacco crop. Cultivated by smallholder and commercial farmers, the Solaris crop is expected to provide an opportunity to grow sustainable bioenergy resources while stimulating socio-economic development in the region. Strong support for the project has come from the Roundtable for Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB), and both Sunchem and SkyNRG are both certified by the sustainability body. The fuel for the flight was refined by AltAir, which is currently undergoing RSB certification.


“SAA is committed to a sustainable future and this flight highlights the bold steps we are taking to protect and preserve our environment while creating opportunities for the economic development of our people,” said Musa Zwane, the airline’s acting CEO. “We are pleased to join the ranks of global airlines who have made a commitment to a better and cleaner way of flying.”


Added Maarten van Dijk, CEO of SkyNRG, which supplied the fuel: “We are proud to supply South African Airways together with our partner AltAir Fuels, which is the first and only refinery worldwide that produces sustainable biojet fuel on commercial scale. This flight represents an important next step for Project Solaris and we thank the Dutch government for their ongoing support that has been key in achieving today’s success.”


The high-energy, GMO-free Solaris crop has high seed and limited leaf production compared to traditional tobacco and as well as producing sustainable jet fuel, it can be used for making press cake for animal feed. An advantage of the crop is that all the agronomic inputs needed for its cultivation – such as fertiliser, water and crop protection – are similar to traditional tobacco farming, so local communities are already familiar with the farming protocols.


With a global oversupply of tobacco at present, the programme has been set up to help farmers with small plots of land to certify their products and gain access to markets for sustainable biofuels and biomaterials. According to RSB, Solaris has a much lower input cost than traditional tobacco, making obtaining finance for farming less problematic, particularly for smallholder farmers, and there is an opportunity for farmers to form cooperatives. Instead of a one-off harvest, Solaris is also expected to provide up to three harvests annually, so providing an income throughout the season.


“Over the last two years, Sunchem SA has successfully worked side by side with local farmers in Marble Hall, Limpopo, to grow the Solaris crop and make today’s biofuel flight a success. It shows that the patented Sunchem Solaris technology opens a new market for Southern Africa and beyond,” said Hayo de Feijter, CEO Sunchem SA. 


As well as marking Boeing’s 100th anniversary, today’s biofuel flight also coincides with Nelson Mandela’s upcoming birthday, and RSB notes that his Foundation’s work on combating poverty and improving human rights aligns with RSB’s Principle 4 on human and labour rights, and Principle 5 on rural and social development.


Rolf Hogan, RSB Executive Director said: “RSB is honoured to be part of Project Solaris, which can improve the lives of smallholder farmers in South Africa as well as inspire others around the world to show that it is possible to produce environmentally, ethically and socially sustainable biofuel. We hope this project serves as an example that can be duplicated around the world in various regions with diverse feedstocks.”




Project Solaris



Video on Project Solaris by SABC’s 50|50:






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