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Tobacco Plant to Make Jet Fuel


Hybrid tobacco plants at a test farm for aviation biofuel production in Limpopo province, South Africa. (Photo credit: Sunchem South Africa)

Hybrid tobacco plants at a test farm for aviation biofuel production in Limpopo province, South Africa. (Photo credit: Sunchem South Africa)

An airplane maker, an airline and a biofuel company are working together to make fuel from tobacco plant seed oil.

The companies are Boeing, South African Airways and SkyNRG. They are using a new tobacco plant known as “Solaris.” The Dutch biofuel company SkyNRG developed the plant. It contains less of the drug nicotine than traditional tobacco.

Julie Felgar works on environmental issues for Boeing. She said the plant also has many more seeds than traditional tobacco plants do. She said only the oil from the seeds will be used to make biofuel now. But researchers are trying to develop ways to use the entire plant to make fuel.

Ian Cruickshank is an environmental issues specialist for South African Airways Group. He said the special tobacco permits growth of a marketable biofuel crop without supporting smoking.

South African Airways passenger jet.

South African Airways passenger jet.

The companies expect the tobacco seed biofuel to be produced in the next few years. Boeing said test-farming of the plants is happening in South Africa now. The company said both small and large farms are involved.

There are two major reasons companies are developing biofuels. The first is the growing price of aviation fuel over the past ten years. Boeing’s Julie Felgar said the high prices make it difficult for airlines to operate. She said fuel represents 35 to 40 percent of airline operating costs.

Second, airlines want to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide they release into the air. The gas is linked to rises in atmospheric temperature. The International Air Transport Association is a trade group that represents 240 airlines. It said the airline industry is responsible for two percent of global, man-made carbon releases.

Boeing said biofuels could reduce carbon releases from planes by 50 to 80 percent. The company said by 2016 it wants biofuel to meet the demand for one percent of worldwide airplane fuel. That is more than 2.2 billion liters.

So, tobacco will not meet much of the fuel demand. But experts believe it will help to increase the use of biofuels in the industry. Today, biofuels are used on a very small number of flights.

Different areas of the world may provide different ways to make biofuels. For example, in the United Arab Emirates, Boeing is exploring the possibility of producing biofuels from a desert plant called halophyte. Boeing said Brazil has produced biofuels made of sugar cane. Chicken fat is another source for biofuels.

Ms. Felgar said it is difficult to predict when most of the world’s airlines will begin to use biofuels. But she said developments over the past 7 to 8 years suggest that time is near. Boeing said airlines have flown more than 1,500 flights using biofuel since its use was approved in 2011.

There is criticism of biofuels. Some people argue water and land used to grow plants for fuel should grow food crops instead. Critics also fear widespread use of plants to make biofuels will cause an increase in food prices. Ms. Felgar said Boeing is working to ensure its biofuel comes from plants that are not used as food crops.

She said South Africa was a good place to begin the use of biofuels in large passenger planes. She says South African Airlines is very progressive in its support for the environment. And she said biofuel production there will help rural tobacco farmers who have been hurt by decreasing demand for their crop.

I’m Christopher Cruise.

This story was written in Special English by Christopher Cruise from a report by VOA reporter Matthew Hilburn in Washington, and from a report by AFP. It was edited by Caty Weaver.

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Words in the News

fuel – n. any substance burned to create heat or power

environment – n. all surrounding things, conditions and influences that affect life; the natural world of land, sea, air, plants and animals

tradition – n. a ceremony, activity or belief that has existed for a long time

reduce – v. to make less or smaller in number, size or amount; to cut

predict – v. to say what one believes will happen in the future. (“The weather scientist predicted a cold winter.”)

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