South African Airways switching to tobacco biofuel in 2015

South African Airways switching to tobacco biofuel in 2015 | 10/12/14
Originally posted at

South African farmers would soon harvest their first crop of energy-rich tobacco plants, an important step towards using the plants to make sustainable aviation biofuel, South African Airways (SAA) and American aeroplane maker Boeing announced yesterday.

Solaris plantation in South Africa
Solaris plants, a new hybrid type of tobacco plant, at a test farm in South Africa’s Limpopo province (Photo: SkyNRG)

SAA and Boeing, along with partners SkyNRG and Sunchem SA, also officially launched Project Solaris, their collaborative effort to develop an aviation biofuel supply chain using a nicotine-free, GMO-free tobacco plant called Solaris.

Company representatives and industry stakeholders visited commercial and community farms in Marble Hall, Limpopo Province, where 50 hectares of Solaris have been planted.

The test crop will be harvested for the first time in December.

Oil from the plant’s seeds may be converted into bio-jet fuel as early as 2015, 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. — Ian Cruickshank, the airline’s environmental affairs specialist

It plans to scale-up its use of biofuels for its flights to 20-million litres in 2017, before reaching 400-million litres by 2023.

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 that is emitted into our atmosphere. — Ian Cruickshank

Lower costs

It would also lower the fuel costs of SAA, which contributed between 39% and 41% of the state-owned airline’s total operating costs.

It is very exciting to see early progress in South Africa towards developing sustainable aviation biofuel from energy-producing tobacco plants.

Boeing strongly believes that our aviation biofuel collaboration with South African Airways will benefit the environment and public health while providing new economic opportunities for South Africa’s small farmers.

This project also positions our valued airline customer to gain a long-term, viable domestic fuel supply and improve South Africa’s national balance of payments. — J. Miguel Santos, Boeing International managing director for Africa


The farm visits followed the announcement in August that SAA, Boeing and SkyNRG, an international market leader for bio-jet fuel, based in the Netherlands, were collaborating to make aviation biofuel from the Solaris plant, which was developed and patented by Sunchem Holding, a research and development company based in Italy.

If the test farming in Limpopo is successful, the project will be expanded in South Africa and potentially to other countries.

In coming years, emerging technologies are expected to increase aviation biofuel production from the plant’s leaves and stems.

Sustainable aviation biofuel made from Solaris plants can reduce lifecycle carbon emissions by 50% to 75%, ensuring it meets the sustainability threshold set by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB).

Test flights

Airlines have conducted more than 1600 passenger flights using aviation biofuel since the fuel was approved for commercial use in 2011.

  • Boeing is an industry leader in global efforts to develop and commercialise sustainable aviation biofuel.
  • Project Solaris began in 2012 with two hectares of crop, rising to 11 hectares in 2013, before expanding to the current 50 hectares.
  • The partners aim to expand the project to 30,000 hectares by 2020, leading to the production of 140,000 tons of jet fuel, the creation of 50,000 direct jobs and a reduction of 267 kt of CO2 emissions.
  • They envisage 250 000 hectares by 2025, according to SkyNRG chief technology officer Maarten van Dijk.

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Biofuel Breakthrough! Interview With Boeing’s Biofuel Director

by Zachary Shahan

Biofuel from desert plants is the biofuel story of the decade, says Boeing
Biofuel from desert plants is the biofuel story of the decade, says Boeing

On the sidelines of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week* European energy journalist Karel Beckman, university biologist Joanne Manaster, and I got to have a conversation with a member of Boeing leadership who has been working on what seems to be a genuine breakthrough in the biofuel arena, and in the energy arena in general. There are a few very exciting things about the development, and some super interesting side notes, so take your time and be sure to read this piece carefully!

I’ve summarized all the key points in text below, but also included at the bottom of this article is an audio recording of the entire conversation we had with Darrin Morgan, director of sustainable aviation fuels at Boeing. Thanks to Karel for kindly sharing that, and thanks to Darrin for allowing us to record him.

Biofuels Backstory

First of all, let me say that I have hardly covered biofuels in the past couple of years because I more or less gave up on them as a genuinely sustainable and cost-competitive near-term solution to our climate, pollution, and resource scarcity crises. Algae biofuels look like they won’t be cost competitive until the mid to late 2020s at the earliest, if ever. Meanwhile, cellulosic biofuels seem to have many of the same critical drawbacks as first-generation biofuels.

Two of the biggest drawbacks of conventional (1st-generation) and cellulosic biofuels are that they require a tremendous amount of freshwater and arable land for their production. These resources are basic necessities of human life. Unfortunately, they are also in short supply for over a billion people.

The new biofuel Boeing and partners have developed skirts those issues completely. But I’ll get back to that after another interesting backstory, one I was not aware of.

Oil Problems… Including Problems For Airliners

While the biofuel backstory is pretty well-known, some important parts of the oil backstory are new to me, and surely many or all of you. We all know that burning oil for energy is a leading cause of globe warming, that oil security issues and wars are a major harm to society, and that oil resource scarcity and price spikes are also a continuous threat to society. All of these issues alone would have companies like Boeing looking for a sustainable, cost-competitive fuel alternative. But something else also has Boeing looking for an alternative to petroleum — the quality of today’s oil supply.

Unconventional oil production from tar sands and shale oil have boosted US and global oil production just as conventional oil fields have have been running dry. However, a variety of chemicals are used in these more complicated and dirtier production processes. Boeing and other air transport companies have found that the chemicals in these unconventional oils cause problems for their engines. They reduce efficiency and lead to other complications. You might think that Boeing and its colleagues in the airline industry could convince oil companies to work on solutions to these problems, but according to Darrin (who I’ll remind you is the director of sustainable aviation fuels at Boeing), in the grand scheme of things, airline companies aren’t a big enough portion of oil companies’ business in order to get that attention.

So, along with the typical concerns that come from burning oil, Boeing has been looking for a sustainable solution that will also perform better. Interestingly, counter to the early hype, Darrin noted that biofuels actually burn very cleanly and would be preferred over petroleum from a performance perspective.

Naturally, oil companies have not been big supporters of a switch to biofuels. Boeing and others in the air transport industry, however, eventually decided that they wanted to research ways that they could genuinely move beyond oil. As a result, in 2008, they created the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group. That seems to have been the seed of the biofuel breakthrough discussed below.

Biofuel from halophytes, a type of desert plant, undergoing testing by Boeing.
Biofuel from halophytes, a type of desert plant, undergoing testing by Boeing.
Boeing’s Biofuel Breakthrough

In recent years, Boeing has “happened across” a new type of biofuel, a biofuel with some amazing natural benefits. First of all, the biofuel comes from a type of plant — halophytes — that can grow in the desert, not taking up valuable arable land. Furthermore, these halophytes can be irrigated with saltwater, again solving one of the main downsides of conventional biofuels — their tremendous freshwater needs. For these reasons and others, it seems that halophyte biofuels can be produced at a low, competitive cost.

Notably, this big discovery wasn’t made purely by accident. Several years ago, when Boeing decided that it wanted to find a better fuel source than oil or conventional biofuels, it aimed to find a fuel that was genuinely sustainable. It didn’t want to run into the problems with powerful stakeholders or the environment that corn ethanol ran into. Sustainability was the focus all the way down to design. When Boeing ran across the possibility of creating biofuel from these unique halophytes, back in 2009, it found that there were actually no patents related to such a process (globally). Can you imagine the feeling? Boeing then started the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium in Abu Dhabi, partnering with Masdar Institute, Etihad Airways, and Honeywell’s UOP to work on researching the biofuel’s potential.

News has gotten even better since then, in a couple of ways:

1) Aquaculture has been growing worldwide as a solution to rapidly declining fish stocks in open waters. However, aquaculture comes with at least one big problem — it produces a tremendous waste stream. Interestingly, halophytes, can actually use aquaculture waste as a feedstock.

2) A key process in creating biofuel from cellulosic plants is separating the lignin from the sugars (the sugars are what get converted into fuel). About six months ago, Boeing and crew (corny pun intended) discovered that this process was actually much easier with halophytes than it was with other cellulosic plants used for biofuel.

Biofuel production via sustainable aquaculture, silviculture and agriculture methods.
Biofuel production via sustainable aquaculture, silviculture and agriculture methods.
Next Steps

Science is all fun and games, of course, but the real question is: what’s the cost? Can this halophyte biofuel play in the big leagues? The expectation is that it really can, and within just 4-5 years.

A pilot facility (a couple hectares in size) is being built in Abu Dhabi for testing that will start in 2015. That testing is supposed to go on for about 2 years, but if all goes well, a larger facility (500 hectares in size) could go up before that first test period is finished — in 1–3 years. Optimistically, commercial production (thousands and thousands of hectares) would start soon after — perhaps 4–5 years from now, according to Darrin.

Just to clarify, I asked if this biofuel would be cost-competitive at that time. Indeed, that is the expectation.

Biggest Biofuel Breakthrough To Date?

Darrin’s concluding remark in our short time together seems on the money to me: “This, to me, is the biggest breakthrough that there is out there.” (In biofuels, that is.)

By the way, while the biofuel is being developed by members of the airline industry, the vision is that it will also be useful for ground transport.

Stay tuned — I’m soon going to dig into this story a bit more in a video interview with Darrin. If you have any questions you want me to ask at that time, drop them in the comments below!

Also recommended:

Boeing Discovers Promising Biofuel At $3 Per Gallon

Biofuel from Desert Plants Set to Clean Up Aviation

New Initiative To Grow Jet Biofuel Supply Chain In UAE; Focus On Research, Feedstock Production And Refining Capability

Image Credits: Masdar Institute

*Full disclosure: Masdar covered my trip to Abu Dhabi for Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.

Keep up to date with my coverage from throughout the week on our Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week channel. Never miss a cleantech beat by subscribing to our overall cleantech newsletter.

This article, Boeing Biofuel Breakthrough — This Is A BIG Deal (Interview With Boeing’s Biofuel Director), is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.

About the Author

Zachary ShahanZachary Shahan is the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular cleantech-focused website in the world, and Planetsave, a world-leading green and science news site. He has been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and he has been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, and wind energy for the past four years or so. Aside from his work on CleanTechnica and Planetsave, he’s the Network Manager for their parent organization – Important Media – and he’s the Owner/Founder of Solar Love, EV Obsession, and Bikocity. To connect with Zach on some of your favorite social networks, go to and click on the relevant buttons.