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Tobacco Aviation Biofuel Ready For Takeoff, After 25 Years Of R&D

It’s been a long time coming, but the dream of tobacco-fueled flight is inching closer to reality. Research into a commercially viable strain of “energy tobacco” dates back to 1990’s-era biofuel labwork, which has finally developed into a venture called Project Solaris. The project launched in South Africa last year and just yesterday it garnered the green light from RSB, the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials.

RSB certification is essential to the long term prospects of Project Solaris, which is located in the “breadbasket” province of Limpopo. It remains to be seen if biofuel crops can be grown at scale in the region without affecting food security, but Project Solaris brought RSB on board from the beginning, which should help its chances to prove its overall benefit to local farmers.



Project Solaris And Aviation Biofuel

CleanTechnica caught up with Project Solaris a little over one year ago, when the new tobacco biofuel venture launched with the backing of Boeing, South African Airways, and sustainable aviation biofuel marketer SkyNRG.

Project Solaris leverages a proprietary strain — non-GMO, by the way — of “energy tobacco” called Solaris, developed by the Italian company Sunchem. The strain was developed to push the bulk of the plant’s oils into seed production rather than leaves.

This handy timeline from Sunchem illustrates the 25-year progress of Solaris from the lab to a commercial prospect:


On Boeing’s part, Project Solaris is part of the company’s broader interest in halophytes for aviation biofuel (halophyte is fancyspeak for salt tolerant, desert-loving plants). Boeing is far from alone in that regard. Halophytes are attractive as a biofuel source not only from a sustainability angle, but from their potential for out-performing fossil fuels, particularly petroleum derived from tar sands.

Sustainable Biofuel, From Tobacco, In South Africa

For those of you in the US who are used to thinking of the southern states as tobacco central, guess again. Domestic tobacco production peaked long ago, and now South Africa is a major producer. If the global scourge of cigarette-derived cancer is to be quelled, then South Africa will lose a major cash crop. The Solaris Project provides an opportunity to replace it with another economic and rural development opportunity.

Limpopo is already one of the major tobacco-producing provinces in South Africa, so if the aim is to replace one strain of tobacco for smoking with another for flying, growing Solaris would not necessarily carve out acreage that could be used for food crops.

That’s where the aforementioned Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials comes in. Our sister site also took note of Switzerland-based RSB’s involvement last year, when Boeing stated that the aim was to grow Solaris “without harming food supplies, fresh water or land use.

In its announcement for Project Solaris’s certification, RSB particularly noted that the Solaris strain is nicotine-free as well as non-GMO, and that Project Solaris is expected to benefit the local economy as well as jumpstart a sustainable supply chain for aviation biofuel.

Sunchem South Africa Managing Director Joost van Lier also echoed the goal of developing an aviation biofuel supply chain that benefits local economies:

Developing a biofuel crop in South Africa’s ‘breadbasket’ province has of course drawn us into the centre of the food vs fuel debate. 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.

As we said, that all remains to be seen once Project Solaris cranks up to speed, but so far so good. South African Airways is already lined up to use the product, and that’s just the tip of the energy tobacco iceberg.

In addition to aviation biofuel, Sunchem notes that oil from its patented “Solaris Seed Tobacco” plant has a number of other iterations, for example biodiesel for electricity generation and marine use.

After the oil is extracted, leftover biomass from Solaris could also be used for biogas generation, and it could also have application as a paper pulp feedstock. Being nicotine-free and non-GMO, Solaris biomass also has potential for use in animal feed.

For those of you keeping score at home, South African Airways (SAA) has the goal of being “the most environmentally sustainable airline group in the world,” and it committed to a sustainable aviation biofuel supply chain with Boeing back in October 2013, leading to the launch of Project Solaris.

When Project Solaris celebrated the harvest of its first crop earlier this year, Boeing noted that a test flight by SAA will follow the first seed-to-fuel conversion, and it looks like both companies are optimistic about the prospects.

SAA is planning to rely on Solaris biofuel for half of its jet fuel supply at Johannesburg’s international airport by 2023, which comes out more than 100 million gallons.


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