Aircraft manufacturer Boeing, along with South African Airways (SAA) and its low-cost carrier Mango on Friday celebrated Africa’s first commercial passenger flights using sustainable aviation biofuel.

The flights used sustainable biojetfuel produced from research and development company Sunchem’s nicotine-free tobacco plant Solaris, in Marble Hall, Limpopo, which was refined by fuel refiner AltAir Fuels and supplied by sustainable jetfuel manufacturer SkyNRG.

Project Solaris was launched in 2014, and was an effort from SkyNRG, Sunchem SA, SAA and Boeing to develop sustainable biojetfuel from the Solariscrop.

The SAA and Mango flights carried 300 passengers from Johannesburg to Cape Town on Boeing 737-800’s powered by a fuel blend made up of 30% aviation biofuel and 70% fossil fuel.

Speaking to Engineering News OnlineBoeing director of environmental strategy Darren Morgan said that seven years ago, fuel costs were ten times what the price of fuel was today, and pointed out that in the US and other countries, biofuel was selling at cost parity.

“What Boeing is trying to do is to increase the supply and technology investment to drive the supply chain further for the development of more types of biofuel,” he said.

He added that South Africa used to have a very large tobacco industry and pointed out that that industry had largely collapsed.

“The idea behind this particular feedstock is to bring back tobacco farming and the employment that comes with it,” he explained.

Morgan said South Africa had a long-standing policy of supporting renewable fuel development and that Boeing, SAA and the South African government had been working closely over the past three years, since the inception of the collaboration, to help develop further technologies and supply chains.

“This is the first step in a very long journey.”

SkyNRG marketing manager Merel Laroy, meanwhile, told Engineering News Online that, although biofuel was more sustainable than fossil fuels, flying with biofuel was more expensive, “but in the long run we don’t know how prices are going to move.”

“We do know that the price of oil [is very volatile] and airlines are very dependent on the oil price, which is quite low at the moment. In the long run, fossil fuels will run out, and with biofuel it is possible to actually set up your own fuel supply without being dependent on other countries or sources,” she said.

Biofuels ensured energy security, which was good for South Africa.

Meanwhile, Friday also saw the launch of the Southern Africa Sustainable Fuel Initiative, which entailed a stakeholder and sustainability plan to ensure a long-term domestic fuel supply for SAA and other regional fuel users.

The goal of the initiative was to scale up over the next several years to gain additional biofuel capacity.

If successful, farmers would be able to tap into local and global demand for certified feedstock without adverse impact on food supplies, fresh water or land use.

“SAA is committed to a sustainable future and this flight highlights the bold steps we are taking to protect and preserve our environment while creating opportunities for the economic development of our people,” said SAA acting CEO Musa Zwane.

He added that the airline was pleased to join the ranks of other global airlines, which had made a commitment to a better and cleaner way of flying.

Mango CEO Nico Bezuidenhout stated that the low-cost airline had always been a great supporter of environmental initiatives and had, over the past decade, engaged in several sustainable and environmentally beneficial social development programmes.

“In addition, we have taken several measures to reduce fuel consumption and, as a positive consequence, reduced emissions, such as through the installation of lighter seating and removal of excess aircraft weight, besides others,” he said.

Boeing and SAA launched their sustainable aviation fuels collaboration in 2013, followed a year later by Project Solaris being announced as the first focus project to convert oil from the Solaris tobacco plant seed into biojetfuel.

In 2015, farms in Limpopo achieved certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB), one of the strongest sustainability standards in the world.

RSB certification provided a model for expansion of Project Solaris to larger-scale production.

SAA aimed to have half its fleet using biofuel by 2022.