Agronomic process and equipment

To optimize the processing chain for efficient processing in European countries several steps need to be mechanized. Some steps can use off the shelf available agricultural technologies, others make use of equipment commonly used in normal tobacco cultivation. But the Solaris process also entails some steps which require specialized equipment. Within the Solaris project we are developing this equipment in close collaboration with machine engineering firms.


One important special feature of the Solaris tobacco cultivar is its ability to flower twice per season in European climate. To allow this the flowerheads with ripened seedpods have to be harvested without damaging the plants that will continue to grow after the operation. No standard agricultural equipment is available for this. Together with Vignoli group Sunchem designed a harvester that meets the following criteria:

  • Cut the flowerheads with minimal damage to the plants
  • Prevent seed loss due to excessive shaking of the product
  • Have a variable cutting height adjustable between 70 and 130 cm from the ground
  • Central flowerhead output for easy collection
  • Capacity to harvest at a speed of 1ha/hour and width of 2-3 beds
  • Usable on standard tractor and power obtained from PTO

The harvester will be tested in full operation with the 2018 harvest of the trial location Pojana Maggiore in Italy.


After the ripened flowerheads have been harvested they have to dry in order to separate the seed from the seedpods. In a good season sundrying in the field is possible. However this is susceptible to sudden weather changes with the risk of the harvest being lost. Furthermore this strategy does not apply to all climates. Therefore an industrial drying solution is sought as used in large scale grass drying. In this part of the project a pilot scale dryer is tested to evaluate if a full scale installation can meet the following requirements:

  • Able to run in continuous operation with a handling capacity of about 1t/h
  • Handle incoming flowerheads with 70% moisture content
  • Reduce the moisture content to 10-12%

Seed processing

The seed processing consists of two steps. First the dry seedpods have to be separated from the flower heads, followed by the treshing of the seedpods to obtain the seeds. Since the seeds of tobacco are amongst the smallest seeds processed in industry (10.000 seeds / gram) the need for specialized equipment has been confirmed. Vignoli has been appointed to design and implement a machine for the conclusive operation consisting in:

  • Inflorescence treshing;
  • Seed separation by ventilation and inflorescence shaking;
  • Seed collection and cleaning.

Pilot cultivation

Pilot cultivation took place in the north of Italy at the Pojana Maggiore site in the 2018 season. Three hectares of Solaris were cultivated in collaboration with a local farmer for testing the newly developed harvesting, drying and seed processing equipment. To achieve the best results on this field the optimal irrigation, fertilization and plant density strategy of Sunchem were used.

The cultivation cycle was as follows:

  • Nursery phase from March to half May (1)
  • Transplanting of the seedlings from the nursery to the field took place on 18 th of May (2)
  • Growing season and treatments during June and July (3)
  • First harvest 1-4 August (4)
  • Second harvest at the beginning of October. (5)
  • Processing of the seedpods into dry, clean seeds. (6)

After the processing of this season has been finished the data can be analysed and the season will be evaluated. Including a thorough evaluation of the new machinery pilot


Cultivation process

Solaris cultivation process of season 2018 pilot cultivation at the Sunchem Research and Selection centre in Pojana Maggiore, Italy.

Field overview

Solaris field overview of season 2018 pilot cultivation at the Sunchem Research and Selection centre in Pojana Maggiore, Italy.


Co-products development

High protein seed cake
After the oil is pressed from the seeds a press cake remains. This seed cake is very high in valuable protein. Sunchem is currently evaluating the various applications of the press cake in the feed industry.

Ensilaging for ruminant feed
The biomass left after harvesting the tops can be ensilaged and used for ruminant feed. An extensive animal trial showed promising results in heifers.

Biomass to biogas
The biomass left after harvest could also be ensilaged and used for biogas generation. This option is currently investigated.

Sustainable value chain

Sunchem takes part in the internationally recognized RSB certification scheme and is developing a road to certification in close consultancy with RSB. We are proud to say that our South African operations already received full RSB certification.