Egyptian tech turns rice straw into paper, insecticide

The new technology could help cut carbon dioxide emissions, too Copyright: Flickr/agapbulusan

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[CAIRO] A new chemical pulping technology could eliminate waste by turning rice straw into paper and provide a cheap insecticide to control mosquitoes, according to Egyptian researchers.

The first industrial unit based on the new technology is scheduled for launch in December near rice farms in Noubariya, 120 kilometres north of Cairo.

An economic feasibility study estimated that the roll-out of the technology could net around US$85 million in profits for one million tonnes of rice straw recycled per year, and lead to 100,000 new jobs. It would also avoid emitting 85,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from burning the straw.

The results of this study encouraged the Research Development and Innovation (RDI) Programme, a European Union-funded scheme aiming to strengthen innovation and technology transfer in Egypt, to fund the US$500,000 industrial unit.

The Egyptian Patent Office issued the Chemical Industries Research Division of the Egyptian National Research Centre with a patent on the technology in 2010.  Galal A. Nawwar, head of the division, told SciDev.Net that rice straw is one of the most prominent examples of agricultural by-product waste in Egypt.

"Yearly, four million tonnes is burned, creating both an economic waste and an environmental problem from air pollution," he said.

The method extracts more than 65 per cent of the rice straw as pulp for use in the paper and cardboard industry.

Current technologies only turn 30 per cent of rice straw into useful pulp, leaving the rest to waste, said Nawwar.

Maha Al Khatib, a researcher in the division, said the process extracts cellulose from the straw to make paper and natural phenolic materials.

The phenolic materials are purified to produce an insecticide that is "natural and non-toxic to humans", but effective against flies and Culex pipiens mosquitoes, which are common across Egypt and many other African countries, and transmit lymphatic filariasis — a deadly roundworm infection.

Gamal M. Siam, professor of agricultural economy at Cairo University, warned that the benefits of the new technology will depend partly on how it is applied and communicated to farmers.

He said: "Any idea that does not provide a mechanism for transporting rice straw from the fields of farmers to the industrial units will face failure, even if it utilises effective technology".

In order for it to work, the method must "provide added value to the farmers, making the 4.5 million rice farmers in Egypt stop burning rice straw in their fields".