Holy Smokes! Tobacco May Fuel Planes in the Future

The seeds from a new type of tobacco plant grown in South Africa release an oil that can be made into biofuel

One third of an airline's operating costs go to fuel. © Radius Images/Corbis

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.

So what else can carriers put in their tanks?

Holy Smokes! Tobacco May Fuel Planes in the Future
Oil from the seeds of the Solaris tobacco plant can be converted into jet fuel. SkyNRG

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.

Holy Smokes! Tobacco May Fuel Planes in the Future
The hybrid Solaris tobacco plant was developed as an energy-producing crop that South African farmers can grow instead of traditional tobacco. SkyNRG

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.

This article was originally published by the editorial team at XPRIZE, which designs and operates incentivized competitions to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.

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