South African planes could soon be fueled by weeds

Two years ago, South African Airways celebrated as one of its Boeing 737’s flew from Johannesburg to Cape Town powered by tobacco.

While the feat is yet to be repeated, the country’s researchers are currently considering other ways to supply ‘green fuel’ – including a biofuel made from waste plants, such as invasive species.

Tjasa Bole-Rentel, an energy economics and policy specialist for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), explained to the Thomson Reuters Foundation that this ‘Waste to Wing’ project aims to one day produce a significant share of the country’s aviation fuel.

The effort, a partnership by South African social enterprise Fetola, WWF, and SkyNRG, aims to create a clean jet fuel supply in South Africa, a country with a long history of developing and using alternative fuels.

“South Africa produces a large amount of agricultural waste, as well as waste from plantation forestry and waste biomass from alien vegetation clearing programmes,” said Bole-Rentel.

“So far the effort is a small ‘proof of concept’ project, likely to produce just enough jet biofuel for one more flight.  But if the technology works, production could be scaled up significantly – perhaps to as much as 15% of the aviation fuel used at Johannesburg’s international airport,” she said.

As part of the project, 25 small businesses will collect and supply the plant matter needed to make the biofuel – an effort to create jobs in a country with one of the world’s biggest unemployment rates.

Amanda Dinan, Fetola’s project manager, said the businesses could use invasive plants, collected in environmental restoration projects and currently simply stored or abandoned, as the raw material for jet fuel.

At the moment, most of the agricultural waste produced in the country is burned, she said.

“In some areas, harvested invasive plants already are being used to produce charcoal or fibrous products such as coffins, but most of the waste is unused, she said, and only that unused supply will be diverted to the jet fuel project,” she said.

You can read the full story on the Thomson Reuters Foundation website here


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