South African Airways (SAA) made history last week when a plane flying to Cape Town from Johannesburg became Africa’s first to fly on jet fuel made from tobacco plants.
On 15 July, Boeing 737-800 flights on SAA and low-cost subsidiary Mango between Johannesburg and Cape Town were the first sustainable biofuel flights to take 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, 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.
“The project has brought economic and rural development to the Limpopo province in keeping with SAA’s mandate to support the South African National Developmental Plan,” said SAA’s acting CEO Musa Zwane.
“It establishes a new regional bio jet fuel supply chain of which we can rightfully be proud. We want to be flying 50% of our airliners using biofuels by 2022.”
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.