ASSIUT – Egyptian research teams are trying to find ways to create biofuels that would release less carbon dioxide than fossil fuels when burned, to cut down on pollution in a country ranked third in pollution rates worldwide.
Researchers at the National Research Center’s Department of Chemical Engineering, for example, have managed to produce a biofuel sturdy enough for aircraft by recycling cooking oils and combining them with the oil of Jatropha seeds, a plant watered by sewage in the desert.
“We have been working on this project to produce biofuel for aircraft for three years,” said Guzine El-Diwani, the head of the Center’s Chemical Engineering Department and the head of the biodiesel production team. “This year, we have achieved good results by recycling edible oils, algae, palm oil, and Jatropha plants.” She said several experiments had indicated the research might have practical implications.
Egypt’s Ministry of Civil Aviation would like to promote the use of domestic biofuel that can be used for aircraft to comply with international agreements to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Those agreements state that the petroleum component of aircraft kerosene should be reduced by 3 to 5 percent by 2020 and replaced by biofuels. Meanwhile, the cost of air pollution to Egypt’s economy has almost doubled in nearly 25 years, going up to $17 billion a year, a sum equivalent to 3.58 percent of the country’s GDP according to a 2016 report on the cost of air pollution on the international economy issued by The World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle.
The proportion of domestic air pollution in Egypt decreased by nearly 95 percent in 2013 compared to 1990. In 2013, an estimated 39,118 Egyptians died of air pollution. While that number is down from earlier years, the amount of air pollution was still three-and-a-half times higher than World Health Organization standards. Air pollution is ranked fourth among the world’s leading causes of death after hypertension, smoking, and food quality hazards, with the aviation industry accounting for 12 percent of the total carbon emissions produced by transportation internationally, according to a report by the Air Transport Services Group in 2011. The proportion of pollution produced by aircraft is on the rise, as air traffic increases.
The National Research Center’s efforts are based on transforming natural oils so they have characteristics close to that of the kerosene used as fuel for airplanes in terms of combustion, viscosity, volatilization, flash point, and freezing point. The produced biofuels should resist freezing at temperatures up to minus 50 degrees Celsius (-122 Fahrenheit) to be suitable for aircraft engines. Lowering the freezing point of the natural oils is the biggest challenge the Research Center’s team managed to solve.
“The team has been able to produce biofuel that would not freeze at up to 70 degrees below zero, through a process known as ‘hydro tracking,’” said El-Diwani.
The National Research Center began its experiments to produce biofuel from the Jatropha plant as an alternative to conventional fuel a decade ago, according to Kamel El-Khatib, a researcher at the center and a team member of the project. “Egypt has succeeded in cultivating 420,000 square meters of Jatropha in Luxor province to the south of Cairo,” he said. “The seeds of this plant have been harvested, and the oil was extracted from them in different ways.” He pointed out that as much as 25 percent of this oil can be suitably converted into bio-fuel for cars through a straightforward chemical process using organic solvents such as hexane, a chemical commonly used in food production.
El-Diwani didn’t want to estimate the cost of producing the new fuel, but she stressed that it is not expensive, especially given that the Jatropha plants are irrigated with sewage water.
But Ahmed Hamza, a professor at the Faculty of Engineering’s Department of Mechanics at the University of Assiut, believes that applying the new research would be expensive. “I think it would cost more than twice the cost of fossil fuel,” he said. “Still, its results would certainly be much better for the environment.”
Hamza believes that aircraft biofuel production research in Egypt faces challenges other than the cost and the freezing point. The thick, sticky nature of cooking oils is another issue: “The high viscosity of local oil sources is a major obstacle,” he said.
The National Research Center team also seeks to produce algae-derived biofuels.
“We have isolated algae from the Nile and Lake Mariout and planted it in transparent pipes using electric light,” said El-Diwani. “Then, the light was replaced by solar light with the use of carbon dioxide from the sugar and cement industries. The preliminary results of the project show that 45 percent of them can be extracted as biofuels.”
On the other hand, students from the Institute of Aviation Engineering and Technology, a private institute in Giza that is part of the ministry of higher education, conducted an experiment to operate a jet aircraft engine using biofuel extracted from castor oil. But the implementation of all these projects remains subject to the availability of funding.
“What is important now is to prove the success of these trials,” said El-Diwani. “Later, we can look for funding opportunities.”