(Johannesburg) – In a renewable energy feat of sky-high proportions, a South African aircraft carrying 300 passengers recently took flight powered solely by biofuels from tobacco plants.
It’s no secret that commercial aviation is not all that great for the environment. And while some airlines are better than others in reducing their carbon footprint, advances in the industry have taken time. Hoping to do their part, South African Airways recently completed a flight using biofuels from nicotine-free, energy-rich “Solaris” tobacco plants cultivated by farmers in South Africa’s Limpopo Province, which borders Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique.
The one-way flight, operated on July 15 from Johannesburg to Cape Town, carried 300 passengers and used 6,300 liters of biofuel. It is a turning point for Project Solaris, a partnership between biochemists Sunchem SA, jet-maker Boeing, fuel specialists SkyNRG, and South African Airways.
“This is very significant as it proves we can use this biofuel,” Ian Cruickshank, South African Airways Group Environmental Affairs Specialist, told CNN. “It shows the industry is really changing. Four or five years ago biofuel was seen as futuristic, and today it’s here.”
And it only seems to be the beginning: Cruickshank added that he hopes SAA uses 20 million liters of biofuel by the fourth quarter of 2017; with 50 percent of its fleet using the biofuel by 2023, which could reach 500 million liters per year. Solaris says its biojet fuel will reach up to 70 percent CO2 reduction compared to fossil jet fuel.
But just how does it work? Before biofuel, the tobacco goes through a nine-month cycle: there’s seed multiplication, a seed, seedlings, planting, flowering, seed maturation, harvest and topping, threshing, and cleaning. Seeds are then sorted, and 70 percent of the product is turned into seed cake for livestock feed, while the other 30 percent is pressed for oil and refined for jet fuel. Cool science, indeed.
What is bioenergy?
Bioenergy is energy derived from biofuels. Biofuels are fuels produced directly or indirectly from organic material – biomass – including plant materials and animal waste.
Overall, bioenergy covers approximately 10% of the total world energy demand. Traditional unprocessed biomass such as fuelwood, charcoal and animal dung accounts for most of this and represents the main source of energy for a large number of people in developing countries who use it mainly for cooking and heating.
More advanced and efficient conversion technologies now allow the extraction of biofuels from materials such as wood, crops and waste material. Biofuels can be solid, gaseous or liquid, even though the term is often used in the literature in a narrow sense to refer only to liquid biofuels for transport.