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Sunchem SA chooses RSB to improve its technology and ensure a better future

The Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) certification boosts the recognition of Sunchem SA’s biojet fuel supply chain initiative, Project Solaris, as a sustainable feedstock

Sunchem SA is using RSB certification as a way to improve its Solaris technology while illustrating the organisation’s respect for sustainable practices. By involving RSB from the start, the company has ensured the inclusion of the RSB standard’s requirements in Project Solaris’s development and up-scaling protocols.

Solaris is a cross-bred (hence GMO-free) variety of tobacco that contains no nicotine and produces more seeds and fewer leaves than traditional tobacco. It yields significant amounts of vegetable oil, press cake and woody and green biomass, which provides opportunities to grow sustainable bio-energy resources.

Sunchem SA is a joint venture between Sunchem Holdings and an international group of investors. Sunchem SA and SkyNRG teamed up to scale the energy rich Solaris tobacco crop in South Africa, and is supported by Boeing and South African Airways.

© Sunchem

Benefiting from sustainable practices

As part of its RSB certification, a carbon lifecycle analysis was conducted for Project Solaris, which showed that it meets the RSB’s minimum CO2 life cycle reduction threshold of 50 per cent. These findings have helped the company position Project Solaris as a new feedstock viable for local farmers as well as being environmentally respectful of the region’s natural environment.

In addition to boosting Project Solaris’s recognition as a sustainable feedstock, certification gives the company greater access to the aviation industry, since RSB certification is crucial for many biojet fuel clients.

Farmers also benefit from market access to the aviation sector and other sectors that value sustainable certification. And, particularly, in South Africa, the certification of the farmers will enable biofuel producers to be confident that the feedstock will be able to meet the emissions requirements for the national carbon tax and biofuel blending mandates that are likely to be enforced in the near future.

Sergio Tommasini, CEO of Sunchem Holdings, explained how RSB certification has been critical to the project both in terms of enhancing its sustainability credentials and a source of advice. 

“The RSB certificate is a key factor for our company and its development process. With RSB, we proved our Solaris technology under different aspects respecting sustainability criteria,” he said. “Thanks to all our partner efforts, we earned this important certificate. RSB believed in our technology and gave us the right advice to improve it during our scale up programme.”

Expanding opportunities for smallholders

Project Solaris is a pilot for a smallholder programme initiated by Boeing, South African Airways and RSB to expand opportunities for smallholder farmers to grow crops that produce sustainable biofuels. The programme helps farmers with small plots of land to certify their products and gain access to markets for sustainable biofuels and biomaterials.

One advantage of the Solaris crop is that all of the agronomic input it needs, such as fertilizer, water, crop protection etc. are similar to traditional tobacco farming, so the local communities are already familiar with the farming protocols.

As a new crop with a variety of co-products, Solaris gives farmers access to new and diverse markets, from fuel to various kinds of animal feed to a feedstock for the paper and pulp industry. It’s an alternative crop for both commercial and smallholder tobacco farmers. Particularly as there is a global over-supply of tobacco.

Solaris has a much lower input cost than traditional tobacco, making obtaining finance for farming less problematic, particularly for smallholder farmers. Also, with up to three harvests it means farmers could expect an income throughout the season, instead of once at the end of the season. There is also an opportunity for farmers to form cooperatives and take part in the processing of Solaris.

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Certification ensures confidence

When it comes to the food versus fuel debate, Joost van Lier, Managing Director of Sunchem SA, is clear that RSB certification gives the organisation confidence that the Solaris crop is produced with minimal negative impacts.

“Having to undergo a systemic process of evaluating the social and environmental ramifications of this development as prescribed by the RSB has allowed us to feel confident in promoting Solaris, not only as a financially viable crop for farmers in the region, but also one that will not affect food security or lead to environmental degradation,” van Lier explained.