Boeing, South African Airways to develop jet fuel from tobacco

Boeing Co. is teaming with South African Airways and Dutch aviation biofuels company SkyNRG to develop jet fuel from a new type of tobacco plant.

The companies announced Wednesday the effort to develop the aviation biofuel, which they said would reduce pollution while bolstering the rural economy in South Africa.

Biofuels derived from organic sources such as plant and algae could reduce carbon emissions by as much as 80% compared with petroleum-based fuels, the companies said.

Farmers in South Africa could begin growing SkyNRG’s tobacco plant, called Solaris, as a biofuel feedstock in place of the conventional plant used by the tobacco industry. The Solaris plant is virtually free of nicotine, an addictive substance found in tobacco plants.


“By using hybrid tobacco, we can leverage knowledge of tobacco growers in South Africa to grow a marketable biofuel crop without encouraging smoking,” said Ian Cruickshank, South African Airways Group environmental affairs specialist.

Test farming is underway, and biofuel production using oil from the plant’s seeds could begin in the next few years, the companies said. Boeing hopes the rest of the plant could be used for creating sustainable aviation biofuels in the near future.

The agreement comes as the airline industry seeks to reduce its global carbon footprint.

The International Air Transport Assn., the trade group representing more than 240 of the world’s airlines, has said the industry contributes about 2% of the total man-made carbon-dioxide emissions globally.

In 2009, the trade group announced an industry commitment to cap carbon emissions and improve fuel efficiency by an average of 1.5% a year over the next decade. Last summer, it called on governments and industry members to work together toward reaching those goals

In October, Boeing and South African Airways committed to developing a supply chain for sustainable aviation biofuels in southern Africa that would boost the economies of rural areas without harming food or water supplies. The Chicago aircraft maker said it is also working with partners in the United States, Europe, China and several other countries to develop biofuels that could be used in aviation.

Airlines have conducted more than 1,500 passenger flights using biofuel since 2011, the companies said.

Twitter: @chadgarland