SAA making progress on biojet fuel project

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South African Airways (SAA) has launched two new mobile applications.

JOHANNESBURG - In the midst of its deep financial woes, state-owned airline SAA has managed to make progress, at minimal cost, on its biojet fuels project — which could save it some money in the long run.

SAA is almost a year late in publishing its annual financial statements. It needs a R5bn government guarantee to maintain its status as a going concern but national treasury is refusing to grant a guarantee until it appoints a new board and executive.

READ: Treasury set to put SAA back on track.

Oil prices, now at US47/barrel, are about half their level when SAA and its international partners embarked on their biojet fuels project three years ago, which means biofuels are now more expensive than conventional fuel. But, in the longer term, the costs are expected to come down.

SAA and its low-cost partner Mango Airlines flew Africa’s first biojet-fuel-powered commercial flights from Johannesburg to Cape Town on Friday July 15. Blended biojet fuel was used in Boeing 737-800s.

SAA environmental specialist Ian Cruickshank says the first small batch of product was made on a “boutique” basis so it was about 50% more expensive than traditional fuel. But as it reaches greater scale, solaris biojet fuel will be cost-competitive with conventional fuel.

Solaris is a nicotine-free tobacco crop. The seeds are pressed to release an oil which is refined and blended to make it a suitable “drop-in” fuel, meaning the jet engines do not have to be modified to accept it.

READ: SAA plans to turn tobacco into jet fuel.

This project has cost SAA very little. It was supported by WWF-SA, through a research grant from Boeing, to investigate the viability and impact of a large-scale biofuel programme on SA and the environment, taking into consideration water use and food security.

Cruickshank says partnerships will help to reduce the longer-term costs to SAA. Asked if this project should have been pursued, given the airline’s strained finances, he says that firstly SAA didn’t have to spend much money, and secondly it would be irresponsible not to pursue it, given the long-term benefits.

“If we get this right it will have phenomenal effects, which will be felt by every SA citizen.”

What is adding to the costs in the short term is that the raw oil has to be exported to a refinery in the US because the volumes are too small at this stage to justify the costs of building a local refinery. Boeing International MD for Africa, Miguel Santos, says refining the biofuel in SA will make it more cost-effective than fossil fuel.

There are various other benefits to using biojet fuel, which should, by 2023, be supplying about half of the billion litres of jet fuel that SAA uses at its Johannesburg hub. It is not costed in dollars, so it is less vulnerable to rand volatility. It will reduce SAA’s carbon emissions, which is an advantage in marketing to the increasing numbers of travellers who are concerned about the effect of carbon emissions on global warming.

The first batch of product has been grown by established and emerging farmers alike, on a three-year trial on about 60ha. The plan, says Cruickshank, is to expand cultivation across the region, creating thousands of jobs directly and indirectly.

Solaris-based biojet fuel was developed by Sunchem Holdings, an Italian company specialising in genetic research, and SkyNRG, a Netherlands company that specialises in renewable fuels. Other partners included Boeing and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB). The RSB certifies that the product does not compromise food security and meets best practices in land and water management. RSB chair Barbara Bramble says solaris is not displacing food crops, but nicotinecontaining tobacco crops.

In ideal conditions, one hectare of land will yield six tons of solaris, from which 2,000l of oil from seeds is pressed. Solaris yields three crops a year.

Sunchem SA CEO Hayo de Feijter says even though oil prices are low, this crop is still sustainable because of the byproducts, since the stems and leaves also contain oils. One kilogram of seed delivers about 300g of oil and 700g of seed cake. The seed cake is used for animal feed and there is a trial under way on using the plant stems to make paper.

De Feijter says the past year’s drought resulted in extreme heat and shortage of rain so the first year of solaris produced 30% of what should be expected in a normal rainfall year. But this was still better than some other crops, showing its resilience.

Farming is labour intensive, not mechanised, at a ratio of about one job for every hectare under cultivation.