First Solaris aviation biofuel crop ready for harvest


South African farmers in Marble Hall in Limpopo province will soon harvest a first crop of energy-rich Solaris plants to be used as sustainable aviation fuel.

This week saw Boeing and national carrier South African Airways (SAA) launch Project Solaris with partners SkyNRG and Sunchem SA in Limpopo. The project is a collaborative effort to develop an aviation biofuel supply chain with the Solaris plant, a nicotine-free variant of the tobacco plant. Over 300 varieties of the tobacco plant were crossed to create the Solaris variety, which is GMO free.

Oil from the plant’s seeds may be converted into bio-jet fuel as early as next year, with a test flight by SAA as soon as practicable.
“SAA continues to work towards becoming the most environmentally sustainable airline in the world and is committed to a better way of conducting business. The impact 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, macro-economic benefits to the country and a reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide emissions,” said Ian Cruickshank, Environmental Affairs Specialist, SAA Group.
“It is exciting to see early progress in South Africa toward developing sustainable aviation biofuel from energy-producing tobacco plants. Boeing believes our aviation biofuel collaboration with SAA will benefit the environment and public health while providing new economic opportunities for South Africa’s small farmers. This project also positions our valued airline customer to gain a long-term, viable domestic fuel supply and improve South Africa’s national balance of payments,” said J,. Miguel Santos, managing director for Africa, Boeing International.

The official launch of Project Solaris this week followed the August announcement that Boeing, SAA and SkyNRG were collaborating to make aviation biofuel from the Solaris plant, developed and patented by Sunchem Holding. If test farming in Limpopo is successful the project will be expanded in South Africa and potentially to other countries. In coming years, emerging technologies are expected to increase aviation biofuel production from the plant’s leaves and stems.

The launch crop in Limpopo comprises fifty hectares of Solaris with its first harvest planned for later in December. Seeds can be harvested three times a year. Seed oils are then processed into jet fuel, with each hectare producing around three tons of oil and over six tons of oil and protein rick cake, which can be used as animal feed.

Maarten van Dijk, Chief Technology Officer of SkyNRG said: “The official launch of Project Solaris is an important milestone for SkyNRG as it marks the start of our first operational feedstock project. Commitment of all partners in the supply chain is crucial to realize our joint ambition and make this project a success, and that’s why we’re proud to work together with Sunchem SA, Boeing and SAA. We also want to thank the Dutch government for their strong support in this project, and for the development in sustainable jet fuel in general.” The Dutch government contributed 450 000 euros to the Solaris project.

Joost van Lier, Managing Director of Sunchem SA, stated: “After two years of proving Solaris’ potential in the small scale trials, we’re very excited to see all parts falling into place and start with the next phase of the project. We strongly believe that by joining forces with our project partners SkyNRG, Boeing & SAA, we will be able to turn this project into a great opportunity for both the commercial and community farmers.”

Sustainable aviation biofuel made from Solaris plants can reduce lifecycle carbon emissions by 50 to 75%, ensuring it meets the sustainability threshold set by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB). Airlines have conducted more than 1,600 passenger flights using aviation biofuel since the fuel was approved for commercial use in 2011.

As an industry leader in global efforts to develop and commercialise sustainable aviation biofuel Boeing has a number of active biofuel development projects internationally. In addition to its collaboration in South Africa, Boeing is involved with projects in the United States, Middle East, Europe, China, Japan, Southeast Asia, Brazil and Australia, researching things like used cooking oil and soy.

Although any vegetable oil can be used to make bio jet fuel or diesel (such as sunflower and canola), Solaris was chosen specifically because it does not take food oils away from food consumers.

In aircraft, Solaris and other biofuels are blended in a maximum 50:50 ratio with conventional jet fuel, resulting in no changes to engines, infrastructure etc., although biofuels often perform better than conventional fossil fuels.

By 2020 Project Solaris hopes to have at least 50 000 hectares of Solaris under cultivation in South Africa. This would also create 50 000 direct and indirect jobs (350 at present). Increasing the area under cultivation would also lower the price of Solaris biofuel, which is presently more than twice as expensive as fossil jet fuel. However, as SAA is committed to using several hundred million litres of biofuel a year by 2023, demand is sufficient to drive the process and bring costs down. It will take three to four years to create a complete biofuel supply chain in South Africa, while a refinery will cost several billion rand.