Biofuels should be on Egypt's agenda, say scientists

Ahmed Maged
7 Min Read

CAIRO: When Rudolf Diesel first invented the diesel engine, he used peanut oil to operate it, which was an unpopular choice at the time. While the world has since switched to using petroleum byproduct diesel to operate these types of engines throughout the past century, biofuels are making a comeback.

Partially blamed for this year’s food crisis – as farmers opted to plant crops used in producing biofuels rather than the usual basic foods – biofuels are still a rich subject for research, especially as scientists debate an energy crisis in the near future.

In Egypt, researchers at the National Research Center in Cairo ( NRC) said they are working on processing biofuel using locally produced plants and agricultural waste.

Some claim that Egypt and its oil-rich neighbors don’t have to worry about fuel alternatives because of their oil and gas reserves.

“This isn’t true, argued Dr Guizeen El-Diwany, head of NRC’s chemical engineering and pilot plant department.

“Calculations indicate that world oil reserves will undergo severe depletion within the next 15 years and no country will escape the crisis, explained El-Diwany.

Dr Mohamed A. Hamad, the expert at the department’s biogas section, stressed the importance of looking for fuel alternatives in Egypt.

“True, Egypt figures as one of the major producers of natural gas, but this shouldn’t translate into pigeonholing measures aimed at finding replacements, Hamad told Daily News Egypt.

“That we have a big natural gas reserve is a plus, but the demand is also so high that we’re left with the likelihood that we won’t be this privileged in the near future.

Bracing itself for a time when the dearth of oil will become an inescapable reality, the NRC has taken part in several projects and conducted numerous experiments to facilitate the use of these alternatives when needed.

Four years ago the NRC embarked on a project in cooperation with the University of New Hampshire, US to produce biodiesel using non-alimentary plants.

The project, which came to an end in September this year, will be followed by another initiative to produce the same fuel through the use of algae.

Biofuels consist mainly of biodiesel, biogas and ethanol.

Biodiesel, the alternative of petroleum diesel, is made from vegetable oil, waste vegetable oil, animal fat and algae. Biogas, produced from manure and other agricultural remains, is an alternative for natural gas. Ethanol, a substitute for gasoline, is produced from main crops like sugarcane and corn.

Ironically, as the West remains dependant on The Third World for its oil and gas supplies, it will also be bound to it for the production of biofuels.

Jatropha curcas, the Indian plant that has proven ideal for the production of biodiesel in terms of quantity and cost-efficiency, can only be planted in desert terrains and hot climates.

“Since we started researching the subject of alternative energy four years ago, many countries requested Egypt to plant Jatropha that grows on treated sewage water, said El-Diwany.

“As we planted Jatropha successfully in Luxor, Sohag, Abu Rawash as well as different parts of Sinai and Matrouh, results showed that it grows better in Egypt than in India, its country of origin, added the researcher.

“This is why we have been approached by one Korean company to grow 200 acres of the plant. Also an Italian oil company has offered to allocate desert lands surrounding oil fields for the cultivation of the Jatropha.

Several African countries and neighboring Jordan and Israel have considered similar projects, she added.

The Jatropha tree, El-Diwany explained, would live more than five decades and the resulting diesel is environment-friendly and is adaptable to all machines.

“It is enough to know that there are some 190 factories that are currently producing biodiesel in the US, she noted.

Concerning biogas production, Hamad explained that the process is based on accumulating two different heaps of animals and agricultural waste.

“Those heaps are known scientifically as ‘biomass’, explained Hamad. “We have begun producing biogas in the 1980s by establishing small units in Egyptian villages.

“Now we have developed the system so that each and every animal farm will be connected to a large unit allocated to the accumulation of manure, he added.

“Animal waste is dumped in a trench connected to a digester . through the dissemination of anaerobic bacteria in the digester the manure is turned into biogas, he explained.

“Regrettably many are not aware of the importance of biogas because the government continues to subsidize natural gas, giving the impression that it is inexpensive. But there will come a time when we have to rely on this process to fulfill our needs for gas, he noted.

The NRC is also working on producing ethanol relying on non-edible cellulose-rich plants.

Not many in the region are considering the issue as we are still dependant on natural oil in spite of dismal expectations. But these sources are depleted, will we feel the pinch even with the presence of these alternatives?

“We’re working simultaneously on several renewable energy plans, answered El-Diwany. “Besides biofuels there is the solar energy, hydrogen power, wind-power among others, she noted.

The issue is starting to get attention on the official level. NRC officials, the Petroleum Ministry, the Agency of Renewable Energy, the Academy of Scientific Research and the Desert Research Center discussed fuel shortages and alternatives in a conference at the Petroleum Research Institute last April.

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