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South African Airways Group conducts Africa's first biofuels-powered flight

Together with its Project Solaris partners Boeing, Sunchem and SkyNRG, South African Airways Group (SAA) made history as a domestic South African Airways and Mango Airlines flight on a Boeing 737-800 between Johannesburg and Cape Town was the first sustainable biofuel flight to have taken place on the African continent.

On July 15, 2016, South African Airways and Mango Airlines flight between Johannesburg and Cape Town made history as the first biojet fuelled flight on the African continent (photo courtesy SunChem).

The flight used a domestically grown feedstock from the Marble Hall area in the Limpopo region of South Africa as part of Project Solaris, a biofuels project with US-headed aerospace major Boeing, local feedstock developer SunChem SA and Netherlands-headed biofuels aggregator and distributor SkyNRG.

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. It establishes a new regional bio jet fuel supply chain of which we can rightfully be proud. SAA as a leading African and global airline is a trailblazer when it comes to environmental and social sustainability in Africa, said Musa Zwane, SAA’s Acting CEO.

Project Solaris – tobacco to biojet fuel

Launched in 2014 and named after the nicotine-free, hybridised tobacco energy crop originally developed in Italy by Sunchem Holdings, Solaris lends itself to the production of biofuel as the plant produces small leaves and prodigious flowers and seeds that are crushed to extract a vegetable crude oil.

Mango has always been in great support of environmental initiatives and has, over the past decade, engaged in several sustainable and environmentally beneficial social development programmes. In addition, over time, we have taken several measures to reduce fuel consumption and, as a positive consequence, the reduction of emissions through the installation of lighter seating and removal of excess aircraft weight among others. It is a privilege to participate in the SAA biofuel programme. The project also shows how, when various role players come together and collaborate, success is imminent, said Nico Bezuidenhout, CEO, Mango Airlines, a low-cost air carrier wholly-owned by SAA.

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.

Over the last two years, Sunchem SA successfully worked side by side with local farmers in Marble Hall, Limpopo to grow the Solaris crop and make today’s biofuel flight a success. We are very proud of this achievement as it shows that the patented Sunchem Solaris technology opens a new market for Southern Africa and beyond, said Hayo de Feijter, CEO, Sunchem SA.

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 high global specification and can be blended with conventional fossil jet fuel and used as a ‘drop-in’ biojet 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.

It is fitting that on our 100 year anniversary we are flying on fuels ‎that not only power the flights but ensure a sustainable future for our industry. This project is a great example of environmental stewardship that delivers economic and health benefits to South Africa, said Miguel Santos, managing director for Africa, Boeing International.

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.

We are proud to supply South African Airways together with our partner AltAir Fuels, the first and only refinery worldwide that produces sustainable biojet fuel on a commercial scale. This flight represents an important next step for Project Solaris and we thank the Dutch government for their ongoing support that has been key in achieving today’s success, said Maarten van Dijk, CEO of SkyNRG.

Certified as sustainable

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 the 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 cultivation 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.

RSB is honoured to be part of this project that is making a positive impact in the Limpopo province in South Africa. This project can improve the lives of smallholder farmers in South Africa as well as inspire others around the world to show that it is possible to produce environmentally, ethically and socially sustainable biofuel. We hope this project serves as an example that can be duplicated around the world in various regions with diverse feedstocks, said Rolf Hogan, Executive Director RSB.

The project is also supported by the WWF-SA through a research grant from the Boeing Company 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.

We commend SAA for taking this important first step to engaging with the burning issue of aviation emissions. Biofuels could feasibly reduce up to 9% of aviation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2035, as long as the growth of the industry addresses the potential sustainability issues associated with biofuel production. By using RSB-certified feedstock, SAA has demonstrated its concern with not only reducing its carbon footprint, but also ensuring that the biofuel supply chain reduces other social and environmental risks, commented James Reeler of the Policy and Futures Unit with WWF South Africa.

The partners also launched a stakeholder and sustainability plan called the Southern Africa Sustainable Aviation Fuel Initiative (SASAFI) to ensure 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 on food supplies, fresh water or land use.

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