As project Solaris gains traction, South African Airways (SAA) has made headway on its journey to becoming a biofueled airliner by 2020 through the conversion of nicotine-free Solaris tobacco plants into more environment-friendly jet fuel.
SAA is currently preparing to fuel a domestic test flight early next year, using the first locally produced biofuel from the oil of the inaugural crop from project Solaris, in Marble Hall, Limpopo.
The 50 ha test crop, unveiled this week by SAA, in partnership with Boeing, SunChem and SkyNRG, would be harvested for the first time in December, marking the start of the establishment of a sustainable aviation biofuel supply chain in South Africa.
SAA, aiming to become the “most sustainable airline in the world”, planned to scale up its use of biofuels for its flights to 20-million litres in 2017, before reaching 400-million litres by 2023.
“It’s a very ambitious target, but we can do it,” SAA group environmental affairs specialist Ian Cruickshank told media during a site visit to the tobacco farm.
Cruickshank outlined the benefits of SAA’s – and other airliners' – shift to replacing fossil fuels with sustainable aviation biofuels, which included reduced operational costs and stability in fuel price planning, purchasing and foreign exchange. The constant fluctuation in fuel prices often caused early-booked seats to run at a loss during flights owing to unpredictable fuel hikes.
“[Pricing] stability for the airline group is priceless,” he stated.
The use of sustainable jet fuel also provided reputational and competitive advantages and aided in the mitigation of global environmental taxes, further reducing operational costs.
Currently, well over 90% of SAA’s carbon emissions were from “burning fuel”.
“The impact that the biofuel programme will have on South Africans is astounding: hundreds of thousands of jobs, mostly in rural areas; new skills and technology; energy security and stability; and macroeconomic benefits to South Africa; and of course, a massive reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that is emitted into our atmosphere,” he said.
Solaris had the ability to reduce CO2 emissions, bring socioeconomic value to local farmers, create jobs and lower the carbon footprint and fuel costs of SAA, the latter of which contributed between 39% and 41% of the State-owned airline’s total operating costs.
“Right here in South Africa, we have found a way to do just that,” added Boeing International MD for Africa Miguel Santos, noting that the project had been “in the works” for some time.
The nicotine- and GMO-free Solaris crop, which was developed and patented by Italy-based research and development company Sunchem Holding, would now be scaled-up across other regions in South Africa and potentially beyond into Africa.
Project Solaris kicked off in 2012 with two hectares of crop, which increased to 11 ha in 2013, before expanding to the current 50 ha.
The partners aimed to expand the project in a phased approach to 30 000 ha 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.
By 2016, the crops would span 350 ha, creating 350 direct jobs from the output of 750 t of jet fuel and cutting 1.1 t of CO2. Project Solaris would expand this to 2 000 ha, 5 000 ha and 15 000 ha in 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively, SkyNRG CTO Maarten van Dijk said.
The project envisaged 250 000 ha by 2025, which would result in the production of 700 000 t of jet fuel, with 250 000 jobs created and shaving 1 558 kt of CO2 emissions, thus ensuring a sustainable, environment-friendly aviation industry.
Van Dijk explained that the end game was to establish a biofuel refinery in South Africa when output reached a critical mass to stimulate a rand-based, fully local industry, which would maintain a cost-effective and stable fuel price and keep the money in South Africa, while offering security of supply.
This emerged at a time when the fast-growing aviation industry was increasingly coming under pressure to reduce its carbon footprint, despite only contributing about 2% of all major emissions worldwide.
However, the global aviation industry had endeavoured to play its part in cutting back on harmful emissions, particularly as, over the next 20 years, 36 800 aeroplanes – 40% replacements – would take to the skies to meet ever-rising demand for air travel.
Boeing Commercial Airplanes MD for environmental strategy Julie Felgar said the aviation industry aimed to become carbon neutral by 2020 and cut CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050, as it did not want to be responsible for increased CO2 emissions on the back of its current 5% a year growth.
Boeing's own strategy was to gain 1.5% in fuel efficiency through double-digit efficiency gains for every aeroplane delivered.
However, while there were “many ways” of ensuring efficiencies, such as delivering more efficient airplanes and ensuring more efficient flights, by far the “biggest bang for buck” was the use of sustainable fuels, which delivered lower cost aviation fuel that reduced CO2 emissions by between 50% and 90%.