Biomass tobacco biofuel aviation development

Published on September 2nd, 2015 | by Tina Casey


Tobacco Aviation Biofuel Ready For Takeoff, After 25 Years Of R&D

September 2nd, 2015 by  

It’s been a long time coming, but the dream of tobacco-fueled flight is inching closer to reality. Research into a commercially viable strain of “energy tobacco” dates back to 1990’s-era biofuel labwork, which has finally developed into a venture called Project Solaris.  The project launched in South Africa last year and just yesterday it garnered the green light from RSB, the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials.

RSB certification is essential to the long term prospects of Project Solaris, which is located in the “breadbasket” province of Limpopo. It remains to be seen if biofuel crops can be grown at scale in the region without affecting food security, but Project Solaris brought RSB on board from the beginning, which should help its chances to prove its overall benefit to local farmers.

Solaris aviation biofuel tobacco

Project Solaris And Aviation Biofuel

CleanTechnica caught up with Project Solaris a little over one year ago, when the new tobacco biofuel venture launched with the backing of Boeing, South African Airways, and sustainable aviation biofuel marketer SkyNRG.

Project Solaris leverages a proprietary strain — non-GMO, by the way — of “energy tobacco” called Solaris, developed by the Italian company Sunchem. The strain was developed to push the bulk of the plant’s oils into seed production rather than leaves.

This handy timeline from Sunchem illustrates the 25-year progress of Solaris from the lab to a commercial prospect:

tobacco biofuel aviation development

On Boeing’s part, Project Solaris is part of the company’s broader interest in halophytes for aviation biofuel (halophyte is fancyspeak for salt tolerant, desert-loving plants). Boeing is far from alone in that regard. Halophytes are attractive as a biofuel source not only from a sustainability angle, but from their potential for out-performing fossil fuels, particularly petroleum derived from tar sands.

Sustainable Biofuel, From Tobacco, In South Africa

For those of you in the US who are used to thinking of the southern states as tobacco central, guess again. Domestic tobacco production peaked long ago, and now South Africa is a major producer. If the global scourge of cigarette-derived cancer is to be quelled, then South Africa will lose a major cash crop. The Solaris Project provides an opportunity to replace it with another economic and rural development opportunity.

Limpopo is already one of the major tobacco-producing provinces in South Africa, so if the aim is to replace one strain of tobacco for smoking with another for flying, growing Solaris would not necessarily carve out acreage that could be used for food crops.

That’s where the aforementioned Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials comes in. Our sister site also took note of Switzerland-based RSB’s involvement last year, when Boeing stated that the aim was to grow Solaris “without harming food supplies, fresh water or land use.

In its announcement for Project Solaris’s certification, RSB particularly noted that the Solaris strain is nicotine-free as well as non-GMO, and that Project Solaris is expected to benefit the local economy as well as jumpstart a sustainable supply chain for aviation biofuel.

Sunchem South Africa Managing Director Joost van Lier also echoed the goal of developing an aviation biofuel supply chain that benefits local economies:

Developing a biofuel crop in South Africa’s ‘breadbasket’ province has of course drawn us into the centre of the food vs fuel debate. 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.

As we said, that all remains to be seen once Project Solaris cranks up to speed, but so far so good. South African Airways is already lined up to use the product, and that’s just the tip of the energy tobacco iceberg.

In addition to aviation biofuel, Sunchem notes that oil from its patented “Solaris Seed Tobacco” plant has a number of other iterations, for example biodiesel for electricity generation and marine use.

After the oil is extracted, leftover biomass from Solaris could also be used for biogas generation, and it could also have application as a paper pulp feedstock. Being nicotine-free and non-GMO, Solaris biomass also has potential for use in animal feed.

For those of you keeping score at home, South African Airways (SAA) has the goal of being “the most environmentally sustainable airline group in the world,” and it committed to a sustainable aviation biofuel supply chain with Boeing back in October 2013, leading to the launch of Project Solaris.

When Project Solaris celebrated the harvest of its first crop earlier this year, Boeing noted that a test flight by SAA will follow the first seed-to-fuel conversion, and it looks like both companies are optimistic about the prospects.

SAA is planning to rely on Solaris biofuel for half of its jet fuel supply at Johannesburg’s international airport by 2023, which comes out more than 100 million gallons.

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Image credits: top, via Project Solaris; bottom, via Sunchem.

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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+.

  • JJ

    Excellent. Just think what they could do if they used GMO too!

    It also has potential as animal feed whether or not GMO. In fact more potential if GMO (other than being stifled by prurience or ignorance)

    • Larmion

      Be careful where you say that. On this site, the pitchforks come out for less than the heresy you just dared to utter.

      It’s a shame this wonderful meta-analysis is behind a paywall:

      It shows that the ‘debate’ about GM safety is just as absurd as the ‘debate’ about the existence of climate change: all the scientific evidence is one side, a handful of crackpot denialists with murky motives on the other.

      In a way, I much prefer the climate change deniers. They are at least somewhat rational: take the money the oil companies give you and pretend you believe climate change is fake. The anti-GM crowd is just, well, poorly informed. And that’s a euphimism.

  • Kenneth Ferland

    If this is basically a vegetable oil derived bio-fuel wouldn’t any vegetable oil and crop which is grown primarily for it’s oil be an adequate substitute? I believe rapeseed/canola is the most productive oil crop though it is generally grown in temperate climates.

    • Larmion

      The most productive oil crop by far is oil palm, though room for sustainably expanding output is limited. Canola is tied with soy and sunflower for second place, and tobacco isn’t far behind in an optimal climate.

      Yes, any oilseed derived biofuel could work. Test flights have been done with Camelina (a close relative of canola), Jatropha and even with reclaimed cooking oil. The quality and need for processing varies widely between oil seeds though; since tobacco is easy to breed and tweak, you can get the oil composition you want. Plus, SA has a huge tobacco industry and rather less experience with any of the other major oilseeds.

      • eveee

        Do you know the energy balance of this tobacco based fuel crop?

        • Larmion

          Do you mean the energy return on energy invested? No idea, and I could find no study on the topic in literature. In fact, there is suprisingly little peer-reviewed research on tobacco as a biofuel, and most of its focuses on it as a source of starch rather than fatty acids.

          What I can do is give a crude order-of-magnitude figure. Literature suggests an energy return on investment for conventional non-palm biodiesel ranging between 2 and 4, if it is assumed that all inputs are made fully from fossil fuels.

          Since yields reported for tobacco are within the same range as other oilseeds and it has no special needs in terms of irrigation or pesticides, I think it’s a fairly safe bet to say that it will be in the same region.

          Note that using transgenic tobacco (for which yield doubling is reported) could further improve the energy balance.

          • eveee

            That will do nicely, thanks.

  • Marion Meads

    Some varieties of Cannabis are way better than Tobacco when it comes to biomass yield used to generate fuel or electricity. Many products could come from it too.

    • Larmion

      In terms of total biomass, yes. Tobacco is extremely unproductive in that respect.

      However, for aviation biofuel it’s not total biomass that’s relevant (ethanol and butanol are forbidden for airplanes due to their corrosive nature and other biofuels are not made from cellulose).

      What matters is the amount of generative tissue (seeds) and their oil content. Tobacco handily beats hemp there and is about average by oil seed standards (it is beaten by oil palm, canola and soy).

      That’s not the reason why people are interested in tobacco though. The requirements placed on aviation fuel are high and even minute tweaks to composition can have a huge effect on fuel efficiency, need for maintenance and safety.

      And that is where tobacco shines. Its genome is extremely well understood and the plant is alone among oilseeds in the ease with which it can be genetically engineered (it is completely accepting of foreign or altered DNA and can be easily regenerated after transformation).

      If you want to make speciality chemicals, tobacco is the way to go. They are the workhorse for making everything from vaccines to specialty fuels.

      Once the process is optimised in tobacco, you can start thinking about integrating the genetic pathways involved into other plants that might be more suitable for your purpose. But tobacco is almost always the first step (and for many fine chemicals the final step as well).

      • Larmion

        Small addendum: perhaps ‘genetic engineering’ is an unfortunate choice of words on my parts as it is taken to mean GMO by most people – which this plant is not, strictly speaking. I used genetic engineering as shorthand for the whole gamut of modern biotechnological techniques: molecular breeding, gene editing etc.

      • Marion Meads

        Other plants such as sugar palms can be tapped to make butanol and it is a good drop-in fuel. For the alcohol equivalent, sugar palms can make more than 5 times the ethanol yield of sugar cane or corn per unit area of land in the tropics.

        • Larmion

          Sure, butanol could make an excellent aviation fuel (even ethanol would work). The problem is that it is no a drop-in replacement for current jet fuels, unlike oilseed-derived jet fuels.

          And that implies replacing entire aircrafts, redesigning engines from scratch and establishing a whole new set of safety standards. For a safety-obsessed industry like aviation, that’s out the question.

          As for the ‘sugar palm is better than sugar cane’: source please? Sugar cane is easily the most productive crop known to mankind, especially if you use both sugar and cellulose as feedstocks. Improving upon it by a factor five would imply usable biomass yields of over 1000 tonnes per hectare. That’s… a lot.

  • Marion Meads

    Up in smoke or smoke and mirrors?

  • Kevin McKinney

    The Economist’s current issue pillories SAA as an inefficient state-run dinosaur dragging down the South African economy. Hopefully this venture will not get dragged into that debate!

  • Dag Johansen

    There are tons of different ways to make various liquid biofuels. The issue is price and this article does not address that.

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