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Boeing begins program to produce aviation biofuel from hybrid tobacco plants

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August 7, 2014

Boeing plans to harness South African farmers' knowledge of tobacco growing to produce sus...

Boeing plans to harness South African farmers' knowledge of tobacco growing to produce sustainable biofuel

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As part of the aviation industry’s efforts to use biofuels to drive down its carbon footprint, Boeing has announced a collaboration with South African Airways and SkyNRG to produce aviation fuel from a new, virtually nicotine-free tobacco plant. Test farms are already up and running, with Boeing hoping to use local tobacco growing lands and expertise to produce sustainable biofuel without impacting food-bearing crops or encouraging smoking.

The modified hybrid tobacco plant, known as Solaris, produces oil-rich seeds – and these seeds will be used to produce aviation biofuel in the first stage of the program. Boeing is hoping that “emerging technologies” will allow fuel to be extracted from the remainder of the plant in the coming years.

Solaris, a hybrid, nicotine-free tobacco plant with oil-rich seeds

According to the Tobacco Industry of Southern Africa, tobacco is already a popular alternative crop with many industrial farming operations in the poorer soil areas north of Johannesburg. In 2013, there were 187 tobacco farming operations in the area employing somewhere between 8-10,000 workers and producing some 15 million kilograms of tobacco, mainly for cigarettes.

Biofuel opponents argue that fuel crops often displace food crops, contributing to the global food crisis and demanding enormous amounts of land that often lead to forest area being cleared. They also question the validity of industry claims that biofuels are carbon neutral or environmentally friendly, given the oil-rich fertilizer, transport costs and water usage they require – it'll sure take a lot of those little seeds to power a 747.

But the aviation industry argues that sustainably produced biofuels can reduce carbon emissions between 50 and 80 percent, and Boeing says it is working with the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials "to position farmers with small plots of land to grow biofuel feedstocks … Without harming food supplies, fresh water or land use."

Source: Boeing.

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Loz Blain Loz has been one of Gizmag's most versatile contributors since 2007. Joining the team as a motorcycle specialist, he has since covered everything from medical and military technology to aeronautics, music gear and historical artefacts. Since 2010 he's branched out into photography, video and audio production, and he remains the only Gizmag contributor willing to put his name to a sex toy review. A singer by night, he's often on the road with his a cappella band Suade.   All articles by Loz Blain
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10 Comments

Using arable land to grow crops for conversion to ICE type fuel is great idea for an alien planet without fossil fuels...well no, not really, not even then. Wasting arable land in such folly on earth is best summed up by Gen, Clements McAuliffe one word response to the Germans at Bastogne, "Nuts!"

Robert Walther
7th August, 2014 @ 02:52 am PDT

> As part of the aviation industry’s efforts to use biofuels to drive down its carbon footprint

Before worrying about carbon footprint, shouldn't they should worry about dwindling oil production and rising costs?

> Boeing is hoping that “emerging technologies” will allow fuel to be extracted from the remainder of the plant in the coming years.

How does it compare to kerosene in terms of energy density and production cost?

Shohreh
7th August, 2014 @ 05:28 am PDT

Hydrogen, hydrogen, HYDROGEN!!!! Bio-fuels are a dangerous red herring.

pATREUS
7th August, 2014 @ 06:07 am PDT

Or you could just grow industrial hemp and get your food right along with your fuel and have as well fiber for paper, cloth, car body panels, rope, structural timber replacement for housing and thousands of other proven products.

JoejustJoe
7th August, 2014 @ 10:29 am PDT

Joe,

Don't bogart that idea...

Pass it around dude!

Andrew Jake Mladinich III
7th August, 2014 @ 12:01 pm PDT

And what's wrong with algae?

Slaven
7th August, 2014 @ 05:15 pm PDT

I'll try to answer some of the above questions:

What's wrong with algae / hemp / fosil fuels?

- Algae doesn't grow where tobacco grows without considerable infrastructure improvements (like grow tanks) and knowledge;

- Hemp has all sorts of social and political ill-will and misunderstandings. Growing it at scale causes unrest among various groups;

- fossil fuels will eventually run out and release more carbon than perhaps poor people would like (rich people will be able to buy their way out of any global warming issues they may face).

Hydrogen: I assume you are being funny. Bio-fuels (and others) are essentially a form of hydrogen. IE: Hydrogen bound to one or more carbons which form an easy to handle and transport liquid. Raw Hydrogen is a tricky customer to deal with.

So why tobacco? I don't think this was adequately addressed in the article so you had to sort of use your thinking organ.

Do we want smoking? no (and by we I mean society at large, not addicts). But if for example we banned smoking world-wide overnight, what would become of the tobacco farmers and companies? Apparently in South Africa there are a lot of tobacco farmers that rely on cigarettes to make a living. So what if growing non-nicotine tobacco was more profitable but required no additional infrastructure or knowledge? Well the tobacco farmers could easily switch crop and governments could make smoking harder. The tobacco companies could produce bio-fuel for aviation instead of cancer sticks to fill our hospitals. Sounds like a big win.

Does that scenario not sound feasible? I think it would be brilliant.

Scion
7th August, 2014 @ 10:08 pm PDT

I think Scion is onto something. I think it is a better use of the plant that smoking it, IMO.

BigGoofyGuy
8th August, 2014 @ 01:05 pm PDT

First off you would have to smoke a LOT of industrial hemp to get high, you would destroy your lungs.

Bio fuels are a dead end. Its not just the land, food, energy wasted, etc but the tons and tons of fertilizer and pesticides dumped on these crops that then run into the water sheds. If you are growing food than you can weigh the cost but for fuel?

By the time we begin to run out of fossils I assume they will figure out how to superheat propellent to plasma for thrust or some other technology. Heck, just perfecting electric cars may cause a crash in the remaining fossils so that what remains will be extended for another 100 years to allow even greater tech advancements.

Rann Xeroxx
10th August, 2014 @ 08:19 am PDT

If you want bio fuel go with bio-methane or bio-syn-gas and Fischer–Tropsch to room temperature liquid.

Hydrogen is just ludicrous.

Slowburn
12th August, 2014 @ 01:01 am PDT
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