Egyptian Youth Turns Plastic Waste into Fuel

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The challenge of finding alternate fuel sources is capturing the imagination of innovators across the global South. As the world’s population increases – it recently reached 7 billion (UN) – and the number of people seeking a better life grows in turn, the energy demands on the planet are pushing up competition for existing conventional fuel sources.

The modern lifestyle that many aspire to requires energy, whether it’s using electronic products which consume large quantities of electricity, driving personal vehicles or living in homes that are artificially heated and cooled.

This energy hunger has opened up a whole new market demand that needs to be met. The scale of this market is enormous, but the solutions are ultimately limited only by people’s imaginations. An award-winning Egyptian teenage scientist is capturing attention for the imaginative solution of turning waste plastic into biofuel, sparking interest in the creation of a whole new source of wealth for her country.

Sixteen-year-old Azza Abdel Hamid Faiad (http://tinyurl.com/dysemjg) has found a new way to take waste plastic and break it down into fuel. She has discovered aluminosilicate minerals (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aluminosilicate) – which contain aluminium, silicon and oxygen and are found in clays – can break down the polymers that make up plastic (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polymer) to produce the gases methane, propane and ethane, all of which can be turned into ethanol (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethanol), which is useful as a biofuel.

According to Inhabitat (inhabitat.com), a website dedicated to “green design, innovation, and the future of clean technology,” her solution could turn the country’s annual consumption of 1 million tonnes of plastic into a year’s supply of biofuel worth US $78 million.

Clever innovators are sitting on a goldmine if they can come up with renewable energy solutions. The U.S. Army alone is looking to spend US $7 billion on renewable energy sources and is accepting bids from the private sector to meet its needs (http://www.forbes.com/sites/toddwoody/2012/08/08/u-s-army-opens-bids-to-buy-7-billionin-renewable-energy/). The army is looking to sign contracts stretching up to 30 years for buying electricity generated by solar, wind, geothermal and biomass projects.

The options are numerous for renewable energy – from solar power to wind power to algae as a source of biofuels (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biofuel). The challenge is to find a fuel source that is plentiful, renewable, and crucially, doesn’t harm other needs.

Using biofuel as a replacement for conventional petroleum-based fuels like gasoline and diesel appears to be an attractive solution, but it can lead to other problems. Some people are using used cooking oils to convert into biodiesels, but sometimes there is not enough used cooking oil to meet demand. In short, a constant supply source is required to meet ever-increasing energy demand.

A famous example of where the use of renewable plant-based fuel sources can go wrong is the case of corn. The widespread use of corn as a source for biofuels – rather than for animal feed or human food – has led to accusations this is contributing to the global food crisis. The current drought in the United States is damaging corn crops and only making this problem more acute. The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of corn (US Department of Agriculture) and much of it is used as livestock feed around the world.

Faiad’s solution is appealing because the fuel does not come from biomass – derived from plant matter – but turns waste plastic into the raw material for biofuel.

Plastic waste is a common byproduct of modern life. Plastic is used extensively in packaging, bottles, bags and electronic products. It fills up landfill sites and is a blight on the landscape in many countries. It is also a product made from petrochemicals (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic), the very source of conventional fuel used by most of the world’s vehicles.

Breaking down waste plastic from bottles, packaging and other products into what is called ‘biofuel feedstock’ – the substance necessary to start the creation of biofuel – requires a means to turn the plastic into fuel.

According to Green Prophet (greenprophet.com), Faiad believes her technological breakthrough “can provide an economically efficient method for production of hydrocarbon fuel namely: cracked naphtha (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petroleum_naphtha) of about 40,000 tons per year and hydrocarbon gases of about 138,000 tons per year equivalent to US $78 million.”

This could be a big economic boost to Egypt’s economy, simultaneously reducing dependence on petroleum-based fuels and creating a new source of income. Egypt’s economy has been hit hard since the start of the Arab Spring (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Spring). The number of tourists fell 33 per cent in 2011 and revenue dropped by US $3.7 billion from 2010 (Egyptian Tourism Minister). In 2009 about 12.5 million tourists visited Egypt, bringing revenue of US $10.8 billion. The tourism sector is one of the country’s top sources of foreign revenue, accounting for more than 11 per cent of GDP, and offers jobs in a country beset by high unemployment – for Egypt, tourism makes up 11 per cent of its GDP (gross domestic product) (Reuters).

Faiad’s innovation has not gone unnoticed. She received the European Fusion Development Agreement award (http://www.efda.org/) at the 2011 23rd European Union Contest for Young Scientists (http://ec.europa.eu/research/youngscientists/index_en.cfm). She is also receiving interest from the Egyptian Petroleum Research Institute (http://www.epri.sci.eg/), according to Inhabitat.

Ambitious Faiad is also seeking to take ownership of her innovation by getting a patent from the Egyptian Patent Office (http://www.egypo.gov.eg/english/default.htm).

Resources

1) Biofuel: A website with a good overview of biofuel options and directions on how to make biofuel. Website: http://biofuel.org.uk/

2) Biogasmax: Biogas Highway – waste to energy concept, 18-19 September in Gothenburg, Sweden. Participate in an intensive two-day programme with complete focus on biogas at the Water and Wastewater Fair. Meet with exhibiting Swedish biogas companies and companies within the water and wastewater sectors. Participate at the “International biogas business opportunities” seminar and learn more about biogas concepts and strategies. Website: http://www.biogasmax.eu/

3) New Techniques Create Butanol, A Superior Biofuel: A story from Science Daily about new techniques to produce a biofuel superior to ethanol. Website: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080123153142.htm

4) Biofuels Digest: The Digest covers producer news, research, policy, policymakers, conferences, fleets and financial news. Website: http://www.biofuelsdigest.com/bdigest/

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