Tobacco has taken a bow here and there at CleanTechnica for its emerging role in the renewable biofuel field, and Boeing is about to blow it into the mainstream. The aerospace giant has teamed with South African Airways and SkyNRG to produce tobacco jet biofuel at commercial scale, using South African tobacco farms as the source.
Tobacco Farming In Africa
Here in the US we’re used to thinking of tobacco as a quintessentially American crop, but according to the World Health Organization that all peaked in the 1960’s. Since then, the bulk of global tobacco farming has moved into Africa and Asia.
The current focus on tobacco farming in the continent of Africa is timely for two reasons. The rising Ebola virus crisis in West Africa has put the spotlight on tobacco, as one pathway to an elusive cure has emerged through an experimental drug manufactured from living tobacco plants.
As for the other reason, the Boeing partnership demonstrates how the Obama Administration’s regionalized approach to domestic energy security is being played out across the globe. The idea behind the Boeing partnership is that a growing market for tobacco jet biofuel in South Africa will make up for a shrinking market for cigarettes and other cancer-linked tobacco products.
Boeing Hearts Tobacco Jet Biofuel
CleanTechnica first got wind of Boeing’s plans for tobacco jet biofuel earlier this year, when the company clued us in to its interest in halophytes (salt tolerant, desert-loving plants) that show promise for commercial biofuel production.
The big draw is the potential for halophyte-derived biofuels to outperform their petroleum counterparts, particularly tar sands derived oil, in addition to providing carbon-neutral production benefits (here’s a video about halophytes that explains the whole thing).
A New Kind Of Tobacco For Jet Biofuel
The new Boeing tobacco jet biofuel announcement steps things up to the next level. The tobacco involved is no ordinary plant. It’s the proprietary “energy tobacco” called Solaris by its Maker (sorry, still going through True Blood withdrawal), the Italian company Sunchem Holdings.
Solaris is engineered to maximize seeds for biofuel production; the plant overall is practically free of nicotine. The seeds alone consist of about 40 percent oil. The biomass remaining after cold press can be used for animal feed, electricity, or biogas production.
Boeing is also banking on future technology improvements that will enable the leftover biomass to be rendered into aviation fuel.
According to Sunchem, the attraction of Solaris also includes its affinity for growth on marginal lands that don’t support food crops.
Boeing Is All Over Biofuel
The South Africa tobacco venture is just one part of Boeing’s transition to biofuel. Earlier this year, the company announced a biofuel R&D partnership in Brazil, which also echoes the aforementioned regionalized approach to biofuel production.
Here in the US, Boeing has partnered up with the Obama Administration and other stakeholders to promote “Farm to Fly” biofuel programs. That includes the Midwest Aviation Sustainable Biofuels Initiative along with United Airlines, UOP (a Honeywell company), the Chicago Department of Aviation, and the Clean Energy Trust.
As for tobacco, a couple of years ago we were still calling it the Darth Vader of biofuel crops but it looks like everybody’s favorite evil herb may finally be on the road to redemption.