Tobacco Cures Ebola And Makes Tobacco Jet Biofuel, Too

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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.

Boeing tobacco jet biofuel
Cigarette (image flipped) by SuperFantastic.

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.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3141 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey

15 thoughts on “Tobacco Cures Ebola And Makes Tobacco Jet Biofuel, Too

  • For a second I thought someone had confused April the first and August the sixth. I’ll just point out that tobacco is a plant that has had a lot of study put into it as it has been used in agriculture for hundreds of years. The fact that it is used in medical studies is more a result of this than any special property of the tobacco plant. The tabacco mosaic virus was the first virus to be discovered.

      • Allow me to quote Nicolas Sierro and eight other dudes and dudesses: “Tobacco is a model plant organism for studying fundamental biological processes, and is the source of the BY-2 plant cell line, which is a key tool for plant molecular research. It is also used as a model for plant disease susceptibility, which it shares with other Solanaceae plants including potato, tomato and pepper. Diseases affecting tobacco include the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), the tobacco vein mottling virus (TVMV), the tobacco etch virus (TEV), and the potato virus Y (PVY).”

  • Please don’t joke about Ebola. Using an experimental drug, ZMapp, that hasn’t ever been tested in humans, is a sign of desperation. The doctors must say: this may kill you, but without it, the disease probably will. Thank God it seems to have worked. But it seems there’s only enough to save Americans (though Writebel and Brantly are selfless heroes), not Africans.

  • Ok, here’s how much acreage we’ll need to set aside just for tobacco:

    Jet fuel consumption 2013 (EIA): 1,419,000 bbls per day

    Bio diesel from tobacco (assume military likes to lighten jet fuel up a bit and the only study I found, beyond press releases was on biodiesel from tobacco): 1,800 kg biodiesel per hectare.

    Through the magic of conversation factors and using American(TM) units (not units of foreigners):

    We’d need to set aside 68,000,000 acres of land for tobacco farming.

    Current tobacco yield in North Carolina is 2,000 lbs per acre. Total acreage currently used for tobacco farming is around 200,000 acres.

    Major biofuel commodities:

    Total soybean acreage for US in 2014: about 75 million acres.

    Total corn acreage planted for US 2014: about 90 million acres

    So basically, given tobacco will need nitrogen and other nutrients, natural gas from fracking will find yet another market. Actually much of the nitrogen fertilizer comes from natural gas already. The benefit of this is what now?

    • It’s not that bad. What one does is, one grows the tobacco, then one rolls the tobacco into giant doobies the size of sierra redwoods. Then one floats them out to sea where they sink. Either into the deep waters off the continental shelf or in an area of sediment deposition. Then one just uses oil to make jet fuel taking care that no more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere than is sequested via giant doobie sinking. It’s not as if there is any shortage of oil, old chap. There’s just an excess of burning it. This plan should reduce the number of people threatened with starvation from farmland being used for biofuels from far too many to still far too many, but not quite as many as before.

      Oh! I almost forget a very important part of the plan! Get Elon Musk to invent cars that don’t require oil to run so there will be oil to spare for jet fuel. (I really must check to see if he’s made any progress with that.)

      • Looks feasible. Move it forward, signed me. Done.

        With the actors involved with this play, I gotta believe there’s a Chicago and Illinois connection. Boeing (a Chicago corp) and agriculture (the rest of the state), check. News feeds clogged with press releases on this, check. Using military and security to sell biofuel, check. All things farmers (a hard working lot), check. Switches department of defense dollars to a currently hung Agriculture bill, check.

        • i don’t know if the bio jet fuel efforts are purely public relations, an attempt to calm jittery investors and convince them that current airlines have a future, an honest hedge against future oil price increases, or a form of rent seeking where they’ll get government subsidies to pay for something that may or may not end up helping them – a heads I win, tails you lose situation. Of course there’s no reason why it can’t be a mix of all these and there’s also no law that says that just because billions of dollars and world food security are involved people have to know what they’re doing.

          Well, okay, I’m pretty sure that rent seeking is going on, but that sort of goes without saying.

    • More than 90% nitrogen fertilizer comes from natural gas. The main substance is hydrogen. We need to stop getting hydrogen from natural gas.

      This basically means that electrolysis (from wind and pv) will need to get cheaper than steam reforming (of natural gas).

      Unfortunately we’re at least 10-20 years away from that to happen.

      • Well, where I am spot electricity prices sometimes drop down to zero in the early morning thanks to wind power and on sunny days it is possible for our rooftop solar to supply over a third of total electricity demand around noonish, so if we had a government that was pro not destroying the planet instead of the opposite, in a few years we could have spot prices that regularly drop to zero during the early morning and during the day. Since hydrogen can be stored we could see natural gas taken out of fertilizer production before long, particularly in places like Australia where natural gas is much more expensive than the US and rooftop solar is far cheaper than grid power.

        But incumbant generators here are working on making it illegal for solar power to be exported to the grid here, so we’ll see.

  • If the desire for high oil content seeds from a plant that can grow in marginal land is the concern here then why not do this with hemp? I thought that it had been determined that hemp is able to produce the greatest amount of oil production per acre of any of the plants, or is it lacking the halophytes?
    Or is the use of tobacco preferred by the evils of marijuana obsessed American establishment

  • Doctor: “Well, I have good news and bad news.”
    Patient:”OK, What’s the good news?”
    “The daily regiment of tobacco has cured your Ebola infection.”
    “Why, that’s fantastic! I’m so relieved! So what’s the bad news?”
    “You’ve contracted cancer. I’m sorry but you have 3 months to live.”

  • We NEED a tobacco that is nicotine-free for consumption by smokers. It is unfair to have the ability to provide it and deny the consumer the chance to break their deadly addiction to the crack like substance that smoking tobacco is now designed to be.

  • I’m glad that we can keep tobacco farmers in business while cigarette smoking declines. It’s a win-win. Simply reallocating the plant to different industries is all it takes.

Comments are closed.