Tobacco might not be too bad after all ... as long as you don’t smoke it. South African Airways and partners have developed an ingenious way of manufacturing sustainable alternative aviation fuel from a nicotine-free strain of the tobacco plant.

Increasing the use of alternative fuels is vital to the sustainable development of the aviation industry. The challenge, however, is to identify feedstocks that are commercially viable and do not compete with food sources. SAA has committed to an ambitious goal of sourcing half its fuel by sustainable means and feedstocks by 2023. To help achieve this goal, a partnership between SAA, Boeing, Sunchem and SkyNRG has pioneered an innovative approach to feedstock for aviation fuel.

Solaris is a strain of tobacco which contains no nicotine, making it unfit for use as a smoking tobacco. However, the strain has larger than normal seeds and flowers and has smaller leaves which make the plant optimal for oil extraction. It also grows exceptionally well on both irrigated and non-irrigated land. What’s more, by using land and resources that were previously reserved for growing traditional tobacco, the project is able to take advantage of existing skills and workers. SAA predicts that almost 100,000 direct jobs will be created in an area suffering from extreme poverty.

SAA plans on conducting at least four alternative fuel demonstration flights in 2016 and is aiming to gradually increase the frequency of these flights in the build up to its 2023 target. Currently, Solaris tobacco is planted on 50 hectares of land and will be upscaled to meet SAA’s target of 20 million litres of sustainable bio jet fuel by 2017. The crop has been audited by the RSB and certified as sustainable. SAA is an RSB member.


*Update (July 2016) - The first flight using this fuel has now been made by SAA.