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South African Airways: first flight with B-737/800 airplane to operate with biofuel made from locally grown tobacco plants

Rome, Italy - Operated last July between Johannesburg and Cape Town

The South African Airways Group (SAA) operated last July Africa’s first sustainable Biofuel flights. This SAA and Mango flights on B-737/800 airplanes between Johannesburg and Cape Town make history as the first sustainable biofuel flights to have taken place on the African continent. The flights used home-grown feedstock from the Marble Hall area in the Limpopo region of South Africa as part of Project Solaris, a biofuels project named after the energy tobacco plant used. The nicotine-free, hybridised tobacco plant lends itself to the production of biofuel as the Solaris plant produces small leaves and prodigious flowers and seeds that are crushed to extract a vegetable crude oil. The Solaris plant is ideally suited for this purpose as the remaining seedcake is used as a high protein animal feed supplement that also contributes to food security. This African First, is a collaboration between the South African Airways; Boeing, the industry in global efforts to develop and commercialise sustainable biofuel; SkyNRG, the global market firm for sustainable jet fuel, having supplied more than 20 airlines worldwide; and Sunchem Holding, an industrial research and development company working in the field of extracting energy from plants and the Solaris patent holder. Boeing celebrated its centenary last month. The first Solaris crop, comprising 50 hectares, was produced and harvested in December 2014 by Sunchem SA, from where the seed oils were extracted through crushing the seeds produced by the plants. The plant then produces additional flowers and seeds which are harvested a few months later. The seedcake remaining after the crushing can be utilised for animal feed as it is high in proteins and the oil extracted is then available for refining into a biofuel. This biofuel is refined to a high global specification and can be blended with conventional fossil jet fuel and used as a ‘drop in’ fuel. This means that no modifications to the aircraft or engines are required at all and the aircraft is simply fuelled with this certified blend. Aviation biofuels undergo more tests and have to meet stricter specifications than conventional jet fuel. All fuel used conforms to global standards. The long-term ambitious goal of the programme is to operate all flights out of SAA’s hub at the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on sustainable biofuels. The fuel for the flights was supplied by SkyNRG and produced by AltAir Fuels. The Solaris crop achieved certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB), one of the strongest sustainability standards in the world. RSB certification provides a model for expansion of Project Solaris to larger scale production. The RSB standard is considered the ‘gold standard’ of environmental sustainability for biomaterials and incorporates stringent environmental and social requirements that ensure the biomaterials are environmentally friendly and are certified to reduce emissions while the growing of the plants is done in a socially responsible and caring way to ensure that local communities benefit and the crop does not threaten food security. This project is supported by the WWF-SA through a research grant from Boeing that aims to investigate the viability and impact of a large scale biofuel programme on South Africa and on the environment considering all relevant factors such as water use and food security. The partners also launched a stakeholder and sustainability plan called the Southern Africa Sustainable Aviation Fuel Initiative (SASAFI) to ensure a long-term domestic fuel supply for SAA and other regional fuel users. The goal for the initiative is to scale-up over the next several years to gain additional biofuel capacity. If successful, farmers will be able to tap into local and global demand for certified feedstock without adverse impact to food supplies, fresh water or land use. See for details AVIONEWS.

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