It’s been a while since you could smoke on planes, but don’t be surprised if you start to see addicts hanging around runways sometime soon.  Troubled South African Airways (SAA) – which recently revealed that it needs about R50 billion to stay afloat – has entered into an agreement with aeronautical manufacturer Boeing and SkyNRG to produce aviation biofuel from tobacco seeds.

The project is the first of its kind and will make use of the Solaris tobacco plant – South Africa is already growing tobacco in the country, and coupled with legislation to reduce smoking, those tobacco farms will be commissioned to supply the seeds for the biofuel.

The Solaris strain of tobacco plant is produced by SkyNRG, has few leaves and almost no nicotine. The plant bulbs are heavy on seeds which contain the tobacco oil, which will in turn be used to produce the fuel – as opposed to algae.

The development makes up as part of SAA’s long-term mission to reduce its carbon emissions by 34 percent by 2020, and 42 percent by 2025. It also wants to make use of its own biofuel by 2017.

“It’s an honour for Boeing to work with South African Airways on a pioneering project to make sustainable jet fuel from an energy-rich tobacco plant. South Africa is leading efforts to commercialize a valuable new source of biofuel that can further reduce aviation’s environmental footprint and advance the region’s economy,” said Miguel Santos, the managing director for Africa at Boeing International, in a media statement.

The biofuel will take some time to be developed, and the airline hopes to gradually mix the new fuel with existing fuel into its Boeing and Airbus fleets by 2017. With SAA’s financial woes, it might make a huge difference in their overhead costs, as according to IATA, 33% of an airlines operating costs are on fuel.

But there is also a social-economic impact.

“By using hybrid tobacco, we can leverage knowledge of tobacco growers in South Africa to grow a marketable biofuel crop without encouraging smoking. This is another way that SAA and Boeing are driving development of sustainable biofuel while enhancing our region’s economic opportunity,” said Ian Cruickshank, South African Airways group environmental affairs specialist.

Maarten van Dijk, chief technology officer for SkyNRG, is convinced in the use of the Solaris strain.

“We strongly believe in the potential of successfully rolling out Solaris in the Southern African region to power sustainable fuels that are also affordable.”

Rolling out or rolling up? We’re talking to SAA to find out even more details soon.

[Source – Boeing, Image – CC by 2.0/Xevi V]