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South African Airways, Sunchem, SkyNRG and Boeing launch Project Solaris

In South Africa, national air carrier South African Airways (SAA) along with partners aerospace major Boeing, feedstock developer SunChem SA and biofuels aggregator and distributor SkyNRG has launched Project Solaris, in Marble Hall, Limpopo. Named after the tobacco plant used, the venture sees the first crops for harvest already cultivated in the area with plans to expand successes nationally.

Planting Sunchem Holdings nicotine-free tobacco in South Africa for use as a biofuel feedstock. Launched in August 2014, Project Solaris aims to develop a biojet fuel value chain in South Africa amongst the consortium consisting of South African Airways (SAA), Sunchem, Boeing and SkyNRG (photo courtesy Project Solaris).

The development of locally produced biofuels not only answers the airline’s pursuit to seek more environmentally friendly energy solutions but in addition supports SAA’s dual socio-commercial mandate both in terms of future commercial savings and social development.

Beyond a possible lifecycle reduction of up to 50 percent in carbon emissions when in use, an optimised supply chain could reduce overall emissions by up to 75 percent. Ultimately future cost reduction through biofuel technology could substantially contribute to positive bottom-line outcomes, said SAA Acting CEO Nico Bezuidenhout.

Sustainable environmental responsibility is a key aspect of the Long Term Turnaround Strategy (LTTS). Social benefits include the potential for small scale agricultural entrepreneurs to ultimately slot into a larger supply chain.

Project Solaris answers several developmental requirements and holds the potential to inject investment into rural economies, the job creation that accompanies it as well as the direct and indirect impact on local markets. As the deliberate global move from a dependency on fossil fuels gains momentum, it naturally creates growing opportunities for South Africans in the agro- innovation sector, said Bezuidenhout.

The launch crop comprises fifty hectares of the nicotine-free Solaris tobacco plant with its first harvest planned for later in December.

After two years of proving Solaris’ potential in the small scale trials, we’re very excited to see all parts falling into place and start with the next phase of the project. We strongly believe that by joining forces with our project partners SkyNRG, Boeing & SAA, we will be able to turn this project into a great opportunity for both the commercial and community farmers, said Joost van Lier, Managing Director of Sunchem.

Oil from the plant’s seeds may be converted into biojet fuel as early as next year, with a test flight by SAA as soon as practicable.

It is very exciting to see early progress in South Africa towards developing sustainable aviation biofuel from energy-producing tobacco plants. Boeing strongly believes that our aviation biofuel collaboration with South African Airways will benefit the environment and public health while providing new economic opportunities for South Africa’s small farmers. This project also positions our valued airline customers to gain a long-term, viable domestic fuel supply and improve South Africa’s national balance of payments, said J. Miguel Santos, Managing Director for Africa, Boeing International.

SAA also supports the skills transfer and development aspect of the project.

SAA continues to work towards becoming the most environmentally sustainable airline in the world and is committed to a better way of conducting business. The impact that the biofuel program will have on South Africans is astounding: thousands of jobs mostly in rural areas, new skills and technology, energy security and stability and macro-economic benefits to South Africa, and of course, a massive reduction in the amount of CO2 that is emitted into our atmosphere, said Ian Cruickshank, Environmental Affairs Specialist, SAA Group.

More than 1 600 passenger flights using biofuel have taken off and landed since approval in 2011.

The official launch of Project Solaris is an important milestone for SkyNRG as it marks the start of our first operational feedstock project. The commitment of all partners in the supply chain is crucial to realize our joint ambition and make this project a success, and that’s why we’re proud to work together with Sunchem SA, Boeing, and SAA. We also want to thank the Dutch government for their strong support in this project, and for the development in sustainable jet fuel in general, said Maarten van Dijk, Chief Technology Officer of SkyNRG.

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