Solaris is a humble crop, largely ignored by farmers across Africa because it contains none of the lucrative nicotine found in other tobacco varieties. Solaris is a non-GMO rop that is harvested yearly with high yields in seeds and biomass. However, in South Africa this largely ignored crop is making a giant leap from feeding livestock to powering a Boeing 737.
Two years ago, in July 2016, a Boeing 737 jet operated by South African Airways and its low-cost subsidiary Mango airlines made the 1,300 km journey from Johannesburg, South Africa´s commercial capital, to Cape Town, its second largest city, running on Solaris crop biofuel. The first African passenger flight ever to be fuelled with sustainable aviation biofuel. The flight took place on the same day as Boeing International’s 100th anniversary celebrations.
The flight carried 300 passengers on a Boeing 737-800 using biofuel made by SkyNRG and Sunchem SA from the nicotine-free tobacco plant Solaris. The 737-800’s engines were powered by a fuel blend made up of 30% aviation biofuel.
Observers have praised these developments in “socially responsible” flights. Solaris crop, the main biofuel ingredient, is cultivated by small scale rural farmers in South Africa. This tackles issues of food, health and poverty and creates jobs at a time when cigarette crop sales are decreasing due to global anti-smoking health guidelines.
In fact, Boeing is now partnering with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in South Africa to increase investment and training for environmental solutions, decent jobs and creating long-lasting value chains for rural farmers who are growing Solaris for jet biofuel projects.
As far back as 2013, Boeing and South African Airways launched their sustainable aviation fuels collaboration. In 2014, Project Solaris became the first focus project to convert oil from the Solaris plant seed into biofuel for jets. In 2015, farms in Limpopo Province of South Africa (a dry climate province), from which the biofuel for flights was sourced, achieved certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB), one of the strongest sustainability standard setters in the world.
RSB certification provides a model for expansion of Project Solaris to large scale production. By increasing production of Solaris and other feedstocks on unused land, the initiative bolsters South Africa’s objectives for public health, rural economies and food security for farmers.
A consultation forum called the Southern Africa Sustainable Fuel Initiative (SASFI) has been put in place by the partners. Its mandate is to ensure a long-term domestic fuel supply for South African Airways and other regional fuel users with new biofuels coming on-board.
If successful, farmers will be able to tap into local and global demand for certified feedstock without adverse impacts on food supply, fresh water or land use.
Studies have shown that sustainably produced aviation biofuel generates 50% to 80% less carbon emissions throughout its lifecycle when compared to its fossil fuel equivalents. Airlines around the world have conducted more than 2,500 passenger flights using various forms of aviation biofuel since it was approved for commercial use in 2011.
Apart from their Southern African endeavours, Boeing has active biofuel development projects in the United States, Middle East, Europe, China, Japan, Southeast Asia, Brazil and Australia.
South Africa´s biggest budget airline, Mango airlines, is fully supportive of the initiative. Their recent CEO, Nico Bezuidenhout, says, “Over time, we have taken several measures to reduce fuel consumption and, as a positive consequence, the reduction of emissions through the installation of lighter seating and removal of excess aircraft weight […] It is a privilege to participate in the South African Airways biofuel programme and it represents the next step in the aviation sector’s active participation to not only reduce reliance on fossil fuels in the long term, but to actively seek solutions for ongoing environmental challenges while positively contributing to up and downstream social developments at the same time.”
Tjasa Bole-Rentel, Bioenergy Programmes Manager and an energy economics and policy specialist for the WWF, one of the groups involved in the biofuel push, adds that: “South Africa produces a large amount of agricultural waste, as well as waste from plantation forestry and waste biomass from alien vegetation clearing programmes,” adding that, “so far the effort is limited to the production of jet biofuel for one more flight.” If the technology works, production could be scaled up. 15% of the aviation fuel used at South Africa´s biggest airport could be sourced from biofuels.
Furthermore, this trial has also highlighted another important aspect: creating biofuel in South Africa, and hence not importing fuel from overseas, is extremely important. “If there is no manufacturing here, the feedstock must be shipped out of the country and then returned after refining. This makes aviation biofuel expensive and pointless,” Bole-Rentel elaborates.
Therefore, a local project is taking shape. The European Union through its SWITCH Africa Green Programme has made available $1.4 million dollars to boost agriculture and protect forests in South Africa by encouraging use of waste to make biofuels. “Waste to Wing” is the catchy name of the project.
There is a local South African social venture called Fetola that is uniting with WWF and SkyNRG to build a clean jet fuel supply chain in South Africa. Fetola means “change” in South Africa’s native Sotho language. Over two dozen community owned businesses will collect and submit waste material needed to make the biofuel.
There is also another alternative: using invasive plants that are blocking waterways and affecting farmland in South Africa. Such invasive plants can be harvested and dried to feed biofuel factories, claims Amanda Dinan, Fetola’s project manager. In this way, trash can help solve South Africa´s employment problem through, “harvesting, collection, pre-treatment and transport,” she continues.
“The Waste to Wing project will focus on waste biomass,” including leftovers from food and livestock feed production, paper making and furniture production, explains Bole-Rentel. This is particularly interesting as agricultural waste in South Africa is normally burnt.
However, the food supply chain must also be protected now that climate change is putting increased strain on food security. The Waste to Wing project ensures that food-producing land isn’t used to make fuel. “South Africa still has vast acres of invasive plants that can be cut down,” says Dinan. The jet biofuel project could be of tremendous help in fighting invasive plants.
Sampson Mamphweli, Director of the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies at Stellenbosch University, also confirmed that South Africa has plenty of organic waste that can be put to use, “This project is worth pursuing. Whether they use organic waste, or they plant the biomass for energy doesn’t matter.” However, he also explains that there is a caveat: “The cost of the actual biomass material and transporting it is also a big factor.”
Bole-Rentel says it is too early to judge South Africa’s aviation biofuel outcomes. “Our trial and research point out that there could be enough biomass to meet 100% of our aviation fuel needs in the future. However, right now normal jet fuel must continue to be blended with recycled biofuels.”
SWITCH Africa Green Programme, www.switchafricagreen.org/index.php?lang=en