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Boeing, South African Airways Turning Tobacco into Jet Fuel

Boeing, South African Airways (SAA) and SkyNRG have announced a collaboration to make sustainable aviation biofuel from a new type of tobacco plant.

This initiative builds on cooperation between Boeing and SAA to develop renewable jet fuel in ways that support South Africa's goals for public health as well as economic and rural development.

SkyNRG is expanding production of the hybrid plant called Solaris as an energy crop that farmers can grow instead of traditional tobacco. Test farming of the plants, which are nicotine-free, is underway in South Africa with biofuel production expected from large and small farms in the next few years. Initially, oil from the plant's seeds will be converted into jet fuel. In coming years, Boeing expects emerging technologies to increase South Africa's aviation biofuel production from the rest of the plant.

The organizations say that, by using hybrid tobacco, they can leverage knowledge of tobacco growers in South Africa to grow a marketable biofuel crop without encouraging smoking.

In October 2013, Boeing and SAA said they would work together to develop a sustainable aviation biofuel supply chain in Southern Africa. As part of that effort, they are working with the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials to position farmers with small plots of land to grow biofuel feedstocks that provide socioeconomic value to communities without harming food supplies, fresh water or land use.

As one of the world’s largest consumers of oil, the aviation industry has a lot to gain from the development of sustainable biofuels. Besides the obvious environmental benefits, unshackling itself from the precarious global oil market could eventually lead to cheaper, more stable airfares, which would benefit consumers and air carriers alike.

Sustainable aviation biofuels already have made it well passed the drawing board stage. Last year, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines began operating weekly transatlantic flights between New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport and Amsterdam’s Schiphol using a biofuel mixture consisting of 25 percent cooking oil and 75 percent jet fuel.

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