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Published on December 12th, 2014 | by Tina Casey


Tobacco Biofuel Sneaks Past Global Petro-Chicken Match

December 12th, 2014 by  

The oil industry has been duking it out in a global match of petro-chicken and as a result, the price of oil is falling off a cliff. While we wait to see which oil companies survive the shakeout, Boeing, for one, isn’t waiting around for the inevitable price spike to hit. The aviation giant is still going gung-ho after aviation biofuel, and this time its sights are set squarely on tobacco.

That would be the South African company Sunchem SA’s proprietary nicotine-free “energy tobacco,” Solaris. We just checked into the Boeing-Sunchem tobacco biofuel hookup last summer, so let’s take a look and see what they’re up to now.

tobacco biofuel for aviation biofuel

Cigarette (cropped) by Naika Lieva via flickr.com, cc license.

Price Spikes And Tobacco Biofuel

If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, you’re probably thinking that biofuel is susceptible to price swings, too. Aside from market forces, you’ve got the looming world water crisis to think of.

However, there’s an important water supply buffer built into Solaris. If you’ve been keeping up with the global tobacco market, you’ll know that rain-rich parts of the US lost their leadership position way back in the 1960’s. Since then, production has shifted to more arid climates in Asia and, in particular, Africa.

Solaris has been engineered to take full advantage of low rainfall, poor soil situations that would not support food crops. Unlike traditional broad-leafed tobacco, most of the plant’s resources go into producing oil-rich seeds.

With another partner, Netherlands-based SkyNRG, the eventual aim is to find a cost-effective way to extract additional biofuel from the leaves and stems, too.

The other thing to keep in mind is that in this age of next-generation biofuel, Sunchem and other biofuel companies are looking ahead to competing with tar sands oil and other non-conventional oil sources, and they like what they see (here’s another look from our sister site PlanetSave).

As for global warming, the lifecycle emissions from Solaris biofuel have been estimated at a reduction of 50 to 75 percent compared to conventional aviation fuel.

The Next Step To Tobacco Biofuel

The partnership also includes South African Airways under the moniker Project Solaris, and the latest announcement steps things up a notch from last summer.

Earlier this week, Boeing announced that the first crop of Solaris energy tobacco is almost ready for harvest. Project Solaris is also designed as a rural jobs and economic development program, so it involves a network of community farms as well as commercial properties in Limpopo province, totaling about 50 hectares (about 123 acres).

That might not sound like much, but the project started with just two hectares in 2012, and still only encompassed 11 hectares as of 2013. The jump to 50 is a good indication that the project will meet its goal of 30,000 hectares by 2020 and a whopping 250,000 hectares by 2025.

The next step is converting this year’s harvest to biofuel, which is expected some time next year, with SAA testing it out shortly thereafter.

South Africa’s brand-identity website SouthAfrica.info has many more details on the Solaris tobacco biofuel project. For those of you on the go, here is a telling nugget from SAA’s environmental affairs division in terms of the economic development potential:

The impact that the biofuel programme will have on South Africans is astounding: thousands of jobs, mostly in rural areas; new skills and technology; energy security and stability; and macro-economic benefits to South Africa; and, of course, a massive reduction in the amount of CO2 that is emitted into our atmosphere.

As an aside, Boeing has biofuel projects going on all over the world. Here’s a peek at another one featured in CleanTechnica today.

Tobacco Biofuel For The USA

By the way, not to be outdone the Energy Department is also looking to tweak tobacco plants for biofuel.

Researchers over at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have been working on a strain of tobacco that can directly convert carbon dioxide to hydrocarbon molecules.

So, while oil industry execs are already looking forward to a boom cycle to follow the current bust, we’re thinking that this is not your father’s oil cycle.

We’re not the only one thinking that. As alternative sources and new energy efficiency tech enter the marketplace, industry watchers are seeing a curious phenomenon: demand for oil products is not following the usual pattern of rising as prices fall.

As with the electricity generating sector, oil producers are finding that in the new normal, you can’t measure economic growth in terms of units sold any more. In other words, you can’t hook people on unsustainable growth by dangling cheap oil in front of them.

Also complicating matters is that even aside from uncounted environmental and public health risks, the operational cost of extracting and transporting petroleum is on a long term rise, while the cost of biofuels and other forms of renewable energy is dropping.

Stay tuned.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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