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Airplanes Might Soon Run on Jet Fuel Made of Tobacco

Boeing is collaborating with South African Airlines to develop a renewable jet fuel made out of a new, energy-rich tobacco plant.
August 16, 2014, 5:55pm
Photo via Boeing/Sunchem South Africa

Tobacco may not be healthy for your lungs, but it could in fact be healthy for the environment if a new biofuel in the works is any indication.

Boeing recently announced a collaboration with South African Airlines (SAA) to develop a renewable jet fuel made out of a new, energy-rich tobacco plant produced in South Africa. The nicotine-free hybrid crop, known as Solaris, is currently produced by a company called SkyNRG, which will ramp up production to meet the companies' needs.


As SkyNRG continues test farming the plants in the country, Boeing estimates that small and large farms producing the high seed content crop — an important characteristic for oil production — will contribute to biofuel production for the airlines within the next few years.

"By using hybrid tobacco, we can leverage knowledge of tobacco growers in South Africa to grow a marketable biofuel crop without encouraging smoking," Ian Cruickshank, South African Airways Group Environmental Affairs Specialist, said in a joint press release.

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Boeing's environment spokesperson Jessica Kowal told VICE News that the move has to do with trying to meet environmental goals at a time when industry business is booming.

"The industry overall is growing, it's a great time to be in our business, but of course it has implications," she said, explaining that the industry has "very aggressive targets" for reducing carbon emissions. "The question becomes how do you reduce the consumption of fossil fuels?"

Airlines have agreed on industry-wide goals of carbon-neutral growth by 2020 and reducing carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2050 in comparison to 2005 levels. Kowal said there are different measures the industry has taken to begin cutting back, including changing flight paths and building more efficient aircrafts — with the last piece of the puzzle being to change the type of fuel being used. In order for the industry to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels, she said, developing "biofuel is the answer."


'The next generation of biofuel is not going to be a centralized process with centralized distribution, that's for sure.'

Another incentive for international airlines to start taking stock of their carbon emissions has to do with regulations being imposed on airports throughout the world, the director at the Bio-Energy Innovation and Testing Center at Montana State University-Northern, Jessica Windy Boy, told VICE News. The European Union, for example, has already implemented carbon caps for international carriers wanting to land at EU airports.

"The US is not the leader in this issue, other countries said 'this is how it's going to be,'" she said. "Because countries other than the US are pushing [regulations] that's what's actually pushing [biofuel] development."

As a major player in aviation, Boeing has been pursuing these type of biofuel collaborations all over the globe. In addition to the hybrid tobacco plans in South Africa, the Seattle-based jet maker is currently working on a desert plant-based biofuel in the United Arab Emirates

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When Boeing finds a local partner like SAA, the company works with them and important local actors to find the most suitable source. In the case of the United Arab Emirates, using a desert plant that can be watered with salty sea water — even dirty waste water created by the fishing industry in the gulf — made the most sense for the environment. For South Africa, the new tobacco plant creates a replacement for traditional tobacco that goes into cigarettes.


"The next generation of biofuel is not going to be a centralized process with centralized distribution, that's for sure," Windy Boy said, noting this doesn't sit well with big oil companies and refineries.

She explained that each region is going to have to find a biofuel source that is abundant and can be developed in the most cost-efficient manner. For example, her research focuses on camelina, which has been determined to be one of the best options for Montana, while New York City might want to focus on municipal waste, and states in the south could look at algae.

While Kowal said Boeing doesn't expect to face any specific production-related challenges in the South Africa tobacco collaboration, there are a few other hurdles the industry needs to tackle as a whole, especially when it comes to price.

"We don't have enough [biofuels] as an industry and it costs too much," Kowal said. "Increasing the supply will take years, but we'll begin to create it in the next few years."

As biofuel supply increases Kowal said that ideally the costs will become more reasonable.

Windy Boy explained that paying $8-9 per gallon for biofuel, compared to $2-5 gallon for traditional fuel, is a big deal for airlines. She said carriers "want the cheapest biofuel on the market, because margins are so low."

 'Anybody willing to dive in a dumpster for oil is phenomenal.'

While airlines expect extremely small margins, the director at Montana State University's Biobased Institute, Alice Pilgeram, told VICE News that the expectation for low-cost fuel is unrealistic when considering the needs of farmers.


"Biodiesel works as long as you don't expect to pay your farmer," she said. According to Pilgeram, a crop has to produce enough oil per yield that it outweighs the amount a farmer would make from food production. That in turn could mean higher biofuel costs, that airlines might not be willing to pay, or higher ticket prices that consumers might not be thrilled about.

Pilgeram added that creating 100 percent biofuels is unrealistic, not only because of costs, but because of its impact on the chain of food production. She explained that there is a point you are forced to displace acreage of a food crop and that displacement becomes "pained." Currently, experts and industry players aim to create biofuel blends made up of 5-20 percent of biobased material.

Producing a hybrid with high seed and oil content like the new tobacco crop or using a plant that doesn't waste other resources as in the UAE's sea water shrub are key steps, according to Pilgeram. But currently, she explained that the most cost-efficient types of biofuel are those being harnessed from waste.

"The only guys making money out of biofuels are going to the back of McDonald's and Chinese restaurants and picking up used cooking oil," she said. "And God bless 'em, what champions. Anybody willing to dive in a dumpster for oil is phenomenal."

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB