Finding a viable alternative to jet fuel has become something of a holy grail for the world’s airlines in recent years. No longer is it just out-of-the-box thinkers like Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson who want to find a way forward that doesn’t depend entirely on fossil fuels. Why? Because fuel purchases are responsible for a full third of the airlines’ operating costs—a mind-boggling $209 billion in 2012.
Aerospace giant Boeing and South African Airways are collaborating with a company called SkyNRG to make sustainable aviation biofuel from a new type of nicotine-free tobacco plant being cultivated in South Africa. This new hybrid, called Solaris, yields especially oily seeds that can be processed into biofuel.
The partners are already recruiting farms both large and small to join the program, pitching the idea as a win-win-win scenario. Tobacco farmers can do what they do without harming the health of their fellow citizens or triggering a food versus fuel debate; the airlines can find a path to cutting costs; and the resulting carbon emissions will drop up to 80 percent through the entire production and consumption process.
It’s not just South Africa, and it’s not just tobacco. Boeing is working in the United States, Europe, China, the Middle East, Brazil, Japan, Australia, and elsewhere on a wide variety of biofuel experiments. After all, an airline won’t want to buy Boeing’s jets if it can’t afford to fly them. In the past three years, dozens of airlines, led by Virgin, have launched more than 1,500 flights using some measure of biofuel.
But don’t expect to see South African Airways’ 747s blowing nothing but smoke rings across the sky anytime soon. Production will be slow to ramp up and scale, and for years into the future, biofuel—which is currently far more expensive to produce than traditional jet fuel—will only be a small part of the aviation industry’s fuel mix. But step-by-step, Boeing hopes, the proportion will increase. Someday, a plane may take off with nothing in its tanks but environmentally friendly and sustainable tobacco juice, and your walk across the airport parking lot may smell more like an ashtray than a refinery.