While electric airplanes may never happen, aviation experts believe that biofuels can reduce carbon emissions from airplanes by 50 to 80%. To unlock the promise of biofuels, Boeing is collaborating with South African Airways and SkyNRG to produce aviation fuel from a new, virtually nicotine-free tobacco plant. The hybrid tobacco, called Solaris, has seeds that are rich in natural oils that can be processed into fuel. Boeing says that “emerging technologies” will make it possible to use the rest of the plant for fuel in the near future.
Biofuel critics complain that making fuel from plants adds to world hunger by using land and water that would otherwise be used to grow food. They also worry that forests are being cleared to make room for biofuel crops. Environmentalists further point out that farmers use millions of tons of fertilizer to grow those crops – fertilizer that is made from petroleum.
Because Solaris grows without needing lots of fertilizer or water and can thrive on land that is too poor for regular crops, Boeing believes it can make biofuel and meet the concerns of environmental groups. South African farmers have been growing tobacco for generations, and Boeing is relying on their expertise to raise Solaris on land not suitable for other agricultural uses.
Boeing says it is working with the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials to grow Soalris “without harming food supplies, fresh water or land use.”