SAA is trying out mutant tobacco as fuel. File picture: Simphiwe Mbokazi

Cape Town - If mutant tobacco seed being used to fly aeroplanes sounds like your kind of future, stick around. Or, better still, head to the Limpopo province, where a project supported by South African Airways, Boeing and SkyNRG this week got the thumbs up from the leading global sustainability authority.

Project Solaris, which uses a “mutagenised” seed for the production of the energy-rich tobacco crop, has been recognised by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB), which has been identified by the World Wildlife Fund and other leading international NGOs as the “strongest sustainability guarantee on the market”.

Member organisations of RSB, an independent, global multi-stakeholder coalition working to promote the sustainability of biomaterials, include Boeing, Airbus and Iata, the international Air Transport Association.

Maarten van Dijk, chief executive of SkyNRG, the world market leader for sustainable jet fuels and supplier to more than 20 carriers worldwide, said RSB’s certification of the Solaris project is an important milestone for the company and for the aviation industry.

Italian research and development enterprise Sunchem Holding owns the patent for “energy tobacco”, under which Solaris is the first seed to have been developed. The patent has been granted in 110 countries.

Sunchem Holding chief executive officer Sergio Tommasini told ANA that the company was also exploring options for production in Malawi and Zimbabwe. The project has the potential to leverage the knowledge and experience of established traditional tobacco farmers although it is not necessary to have the same climate conditions because Solaris can be cultivated under various conditions, said Tommasini.

Home grown

Nonetheless, a project like this depends on a lot more than the weather, including trustworthy partners with imagination, which the company has found in South Africa.

Tommasini told ANA that, in South Africa, Sunchem had “found very solid partners and in general it is the country that more than others [Brazil, Bulgaria, North Carolina] that has embraced our vision and grasped its potential, considering especially the social impact that growing energetic tobacco could generate if applied on a large scale”.

The Solaris tobacco plant is free of nicotine and GMOs and maximises the production of flowers and seeds at the expense of leaves. The seed is about 40 percent oil and subjected to mechanical pressure about 34 percent of the seed oil can be extracted. This is more than double the yield from rapeseed, soy or sunflower. What is left, being free from nicotine, can be used in fodder for animals.

The project, which uses a mix of commercial farmers and smallholders, has brought economic and rural development to the Limpopo province but questions will be asked about using arable land to produce fuel for aeroplanes.

“Developing a biofuel crop in South Africa’s ‘breadbasket’ province has of course drawn us into the centre of the food versus fuel debate,” said Sunchem South Africa’s MD Joost van Lier.

“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.”

RSB executive director Rolf Hogan said: “Project Solaris has demonstrated that it can deliver sustainability on the ground in line with the RSBs global standard.”

“This is the result of a serious commitment to working with local stakeholders, rural development and reducing greenhouse gases while safeguarding the Limpopo’s unique natural environment.”

Boeing is a premium sponsor and promoter of the Solaris technology worldwide. The company’s MD for Africa, J. Miguel Santos, said: “We applaud South African Airways and the South African Government for ensuring the sustainability of their emerging aviation biofuel supply chain as it is being developed. This milestone marks a very significant step forward in ensuring positive economic, social and environmental outcomes for aviation and the planet.”

Meanwhile, SAA said it was a proud member of the RSB.

“SAA is a proud member of the RSB and subscribes to the environmental and social sustainability principles enshrined in the RSB standard. This certification ensures that future fuels contribute to reductions in CO2 and are environmentally sustainable and contribute social and economic benefits to our rural economy where it is needed most,” the group’s environmental specialist Ian Cruickshank said.