You can’t use tobacco while flying, but your plane can. Boeing
is working with South African Airways to power the carrier’s planes
with biofuel derived from a new breed of tobacco plant.
Biofuels work just like fossil fuels, but they are made from
renewable sources like algae, wood, agricultural waste, and
camelina and jatropha plants. Finding alternatives to dino-juice is
a key goal for the airline industry, because fuel is an airline’s
single biggest expense — it accounts for one-third of all
operating expenses. Beyond the financial savings, the International
Air Transport Association estimates biofuels can cut the industry’s
overall carbon footprint by 80 percent. No wonder dozens of
airlines already have tested them in flight.
Boeing has biofuel projects running on six continents to help
move things along. This latest project, announced Wednesday, began
in October after South African Airways approached the Seattle
company to develop a sustainable biofuel supply chain. South Africa
has pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 34 percent by 2020
and 42 percent by 2025, and South African Airways wants to use
homegrown biofuel by 2017.
The plane maker and the airline settled on using tobacco instead
of more established biofuel sources like algae for a few reasons.
For a biofuel to make sense, Boeing spokesperson Jessica Kowal
says, the source should be locally grown (to minimise
transportation costs and the carbon footprint involved in it), fit
into existing supply chains, and not raise problems with land and
water use — which often prompts a “fuel or food” debate. Tobacco
already is grown in South Africa. As the country strives to reduce
smoking, using those crops for fuels minimises the impact of such a
campaign on farmers.
The tobacco strain, called Solaris, being used for the fuel is
produced by SkyNRG, a sustainable fuel company. It is heavy on
seeds, which contain the plant oil that’s made into the fuel, and
light on leaves. Also, it contains virtually no nicotine.
Getting the tobacco-based biofuel into South African Airways’
fleet of Boeing and Airbus planes will take a few years as
production ramps up. And it’s not as if come 2017, the airline will
suddenly stop using conventional jet fuel. The idea, as is the case
with all biofuels, is to mix the tobacco-based product with what’s
already in the tank. “That’s the only feasible approach,” Kowal
says, because the shift must be made gradually.
Using the tobacco biofuel is good for the planet and the
airlines’ public images, but the problem is that it doesn’t yet
help the industry with a much bigger problem: fuel costs. In 2012,
the world’s airlines spent $209 billion (£124bn) on fuel — 33
percent of their operating costs — according
to the IATA. If they switched to biofuels now, that number
would skyrocket: The stuff made from plants and agricultural waste
we’ve seen used so far are actually
more expensive than traditional jet fuel.
That could change if and when production ramps up, and Kowal
argues the mere existence of the stuff will help airlines save on
money. “The way that you reduce cost is you expand supply.”
This article originally appeared on Wired.com