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RENTON, Wash. - Boeing announced Wednesday that it is working with South African Airways and SkyNRG, a Dutch refiner, to turn a hybrid tobacco plant grown in South Africa into bio-fuel that can substitute for petroleum based fuel for jets in that part of the world.

But that same tobacco plant could also come to the U.S., allowing American tobacco farmers to grow bio-fuel instead of traditional tobacco in a declining market where fewer and fewer people smoke.

Bio-fuel substitutes for petroleum can come from a variety of sources as long as refiners can synthesize a fuel atom from a plant, or even some animal fats, into an atom that s essentially identical to one derived from petroleum, which is formed by plants that lived millions of years ago.

South Africa has a focus on helping their farmers ensure that they can make a living into the future. And they have a large tobacco farming population, said Julie Felgar, Boeing s Managing Director for Environmental Strategy and Integration.

The Northwest has become a hotbed for bio-fuel research in just a few short years. The entire aviation bio-fuel industry is less than a decade old. Washington State University, the University of Washington, Boeing, Alaska Airlines and a variety of bio-tech companies and agricultural interests have been developing a world beyond petroleum. Legally, bio-fuels can be substituted for up to 50% of the fuel aboard a jet, the rest being traditional jet fuel. But most flights so far have been a series of experimental tests, one of the most extensive performed by Alaska Airlines in 2011.

In the Northwest much of the research has focused on using waste from logging and thinning operations. Camelina plants, grown in drier sections of the region, is an oil seed that does not compete with food crops. Even garbage is considered a source for a fuel substitute.

It s all about cutting carbon emissions. The idea of carbon neutrality is carbon emitted when the bio-fuel is burned is offset by carbon consumption as the plant grows, unlike petroleum that takes carbon stored in the Earth and emitting it into the atmosphere.

The aviation industry has set really aggressive targets and if we re going to reduce our emissions by 50% by 2050, bio-fuel is one of our biggest bangs for our bucks in doing that, said Felgar. So the airline industry is really asking for a lot of help in this regard.

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