South African farmers would soon harvest their first crop of energy-rich tobacco plants, an important step towards using the plants to make sustainable aviation biofuel, South African Airways (SAA) and American aeroplane maker Boeing announced yesterday.
SAA and Boeing, along with partners SkyNRG and Sunchem SA, also officially launched Project Solaris, their collaborative effort to develop an aviation biofuel supply chain using a nicotine-free, GMO-free tobacco plant called Solaris.
Company representatives and industry stakeholders visited commercial and community farms in Marble Hall, Limpopo Province, where 50 hectares of Solaris have been planted.
The test crop will be harvested for the first time in December.
Oil from the plant’s seeds may be converted into bio-jet fuel as early as 2015, 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,” said Ian Cruickshank, the airline’s environmental affairs specialist.
It planned to scale up its use of biofuels for its flights to 20 million litres in 2017, before reaching 400 million litres by 2023.
“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.”
It would also lower the fuel costs of SAA, which contributed between 39% and 41% of the state-owned airline’s total operating costs.
“It is very exciting to see early progress in South Africa towards developing sustainable aviation biofuel from energy-producing tobacco plants,” said J Miguel Santos, the Boeing International managing director for Africa.
The farm visits followed the announcement in August that SAA, Boeing and SkyNRG, an international market leader for bio-jet fuel, based in the Netherlands, were collaborating to make aviation biofuel from the Solaris plant, which was developed and patented by Sunchem Holding, a research and development company based in Italy.
If the 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.
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.
Boeing is an industry leader in global efforts to develop and commercialise sustainable aviation biofuel.
Project Solaris began in 2012 with two hectares of crop, rising to 11 hectares in 2013, before expanding to the current 50 hectares. The partners aim to expand the project to 30 000 hectares by 2020, leading to the production of 140 000 t of jet fuel, the creation of 50 000 direct jobs and a reduction of 267 kt of CO2 emissions.
They envisage 250 000 hectares by 2025, according to SkyNRG chief technology officer Maarten van Dijk. [250,000 hectares is about the size of Dorset].
US researchers increase tobacco’s oil production for biofuel use
A team of researchers from the Thomas Jefferson University‘s Biotechnology Foundation Laboratories (BFL) in the United Stateshave managed to increase the amount of oil produced by tobacco leaves. Tobacco oil can be very efficiently converted to biofuel, but most oil is located in the seeds, which the plant does not produce many of.
Tobacco seeds produce around 40% oil per dry weight but a crop of the plant yields only around 600kg of seeds per acre. The leaves have an oil content of around 1.7–4% oil per dry weight. The oil has previously been tested for powering diesel-fueled vehicles and can be more efficiently converted than the product of many other crop plants.
The team from BFL identified that oil production in the leaves was controlled by two genes: the diacyglycerol acytransferase (DGAT) and the LEAFY COTYLEDON 2 (LEC2) genes. By genetic engineering, they achieved oil yields of 5.8% oil per dry weight by modifying the DGAT while changes to the LEC2 resulted in a yield of 6.8% per dry weight.
“Tobacco is very attractive as a biofuel because the idea is to use plants that aren’t used in food production,” said cancer biology assistant professor at Thomas Jefferson Dr Vyacheslav Andrianov, Ph.D. “In some instances, the modified plants produced 20-fold more oil in the leaves.”
Tips on tobacco growing – the plant needs adequate water and fertilser – it cannot grow in very poor soil or in very dry areas. Hence it is in competition with food for land. http://allafrica.com/stories/201407100124.html