Papyrus, the plant used by the Pharaohs' scribes, by Rome's bureaucrats and by Charlemagne's bookkeepers, may soon become an important source of fuel for Central African nations, according to engineers and botanists studying the tall, tufted reed in the far reaches of the Nile.
Using "briquetting" techniques developed in Ireland and Northern Europe to turn sedge plants into a fuel, those engineers and botanists - specialists assigned to Rwanda by the United Nations - have already developed a sample of saleable papyrus "bricks" that, they say, could be developed into a valuable fuel - at least in Central Africa where forests are being destroyed in a frantic search for firewood.
Harvested by hand - much as depicted on ancient Eygptian papyrus documents - the papyrus, in a $100,000 briquetting factory funded by the Irish government, can be chopped into straw-like pieces, compressed some 25 times and extruded in sausage-shaped briquettes for home cooking or heating purposes.
Though its use as a fuel is new, papyrus, in other ages, was once a vital substance. Papyrus was, in fact, the sole writing material in much of the world for more than 5,000 years; the Romans used papyrus so extensively that the failure of the Eygptian crop once brought commerce to a halt.
Papyrus was also used for shipbuilding in both Egypt and the Gulf. As Thor Heyerdahl wrote in The Tigris Expedition, reed-ships were depicted on the walls of caves in Palestine and on Hittite seals at Gaziantep on the Turkish-Syrian border. Heyerdahl himself, in 1970, crossed the South Atlantic in the wholly papyrus-built vessel Ra, made of 12 tons of the plant from Ethiopia's Lake Tana. Heyerdahl believes that cultivation of the plant was brought to the Canary Islands, off the Atlantic coast of Morocco, and some botanists think the papyrus-like giant sedge along the shore of the Gulf of Mexico may be evidence that the plant was introduced to the Americas by Mediterranean-based explorers.
As a writing material, papyrus, along with parchment and vellum, was replaced almost as soon as Islamic forces reached the Chinese border in 751 (See Aramco World, July-August 1985) and learned the secret of making paper; as a consequence papyrus plants along the Nile were eventually uprooted and replaced by other still useful crops.
Papyrus still grows on millions of hectares of swampland in the Sudd in The Sudan, along the edge of Lake Victoria and in the swamps and river valleys of Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania, but has had no commercial use for centuries. Though the techniques of processing papyrus were "rediscovered" by Egyptian Hassan Ragab in the early 1960's (See Aramco World, July-August 1973), the "paper" made from the reed has been sold mainly as conversation pieces and more often than not, the papyrus plant is considered a nuisance; large chunks of papyrus still break off Lake Victoria's shores and form floating islands that hinder navigation.
In the late 1970's, however, James Martin, an engineer with Ireland's Peat Board, was dispatched to Rwanda by the UN to survey the potential for peat production in the country's vast swamps and wide river valleys; partly carbonized vegetable matter similar to coal, peat is an important fuel in places like Ireland and Russia, and was reported to be plentiful in Rwanda.
Few better specialists could have been found for the job: Martin, now retired, calls himself the Peat Board's "idea man" - and peat itself generates a full quarter of Ireland's electricity.
With 5.1 million people, Rwanda, Africa's most densely populated country, was especially interested in peat because, Martin said in an Aramco World interview in Dublin, "the government had been told in Rwanda they were resting on a treasure chest of peat." It was when Martin arrived in Rwanda's capital, Kigali, in 1978, that he found that the peat was "by and large unrecoverable in any modern, mechanical way because the land was always flooded." On the other hand, Martin found that there were great quantities of papyrus available. "And when I chopped them up I turned out a darned fine briquette ."To be sure his theory was practical Martin sent half a ton of papyrus to Europe to be tested under factory briquetting conditions and in 1980, satisfied, suggested an alternative to the Rwanda government: instead of destroying the papyrus to dig out the peat, why not utilize the papyrus?
In 1981, unfortunately, Martin, still investigating, ran into a snag. Dr. Michael Jones, professor of plant physiology in Dublin's Trinity College, who had already studied papyrus in Uganda and Kenya, warned that extensive use of papyrus required caution. "Overharvesting the papyrus ... could mean the destruction of an entire [plant] culture," Jones said in an interview. "Papyrus is a natural resource that needs to be protected as much as trees."
As a result, he said, the decision was made that while developing papyrus briquetting, botanical studies should be carried out as well. Jones brought papyrus seeds to Dublin, where, in Trinity's Botanical Gardens, they grow 1.5 meters (five feet) tall - pygmy size compared to their wild cousins, but not so bad in Ireland's cool climate. They also recorded that in its natural environment, papyrus can shoot up five centimeters (two inches) a day, reaching its 4.5 meter (15 feet) maturity in 50 days. The plant has a 150-day life cycle, meaning the natural community grows two "crops" a year. Furthermore, yields per hectare can be as high as 32 tons.
More to the point, the specialists decided that a papyrus-based fuel could become a paying proposition - not least in spots like heavily populated Kigali (90,000 residents) where, with proper development, briquetted papyrus might provide virtually the same amount of heat per kilogram as wood. Indeed, according to a study undertaken for the United States Agency for International Development, briquetted papyrus "burns like charcoal" within 15 minutes of lighting "with a steady, clean heat up to three hours without replenishment... outperforming both charcoal and wood."
The fuel does have drawbacks: papyrus briquettes take longer to light than traditional fuels and can't be extinguished with water and then relit. Sales, therefore have been lower than had been hoped for. But in places like Rwanda, as in many African countries, charcoal and wood-fuel dealers are having to travel farther and farther in search of marketable material; around Kigali, for example, there is virtually "nothing left" of once large forests, said Jones.
Papyrus, in fact, could turn out to be an important addition to the world's fuel resources. Last July Edouard Saouma, director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), told the Ninth World Forestry Congress in Mexico City that two billion people depend on wood for fuel and one billion of them are cutting down trees faster than the trees can be replanted and replaced. As a result, said FAO officials, some 11 million hectares of tropical forests (27 million acres) disappear every year. The forestry congress also called for the establishment of a world fund to safeguard and foster forest resources.
In Rwanda, such warnings are taken seriously - as is Jones' warning on over-harvesting the papyrus plants. A 12-hectare (30 acres) river valley some 40 kilometers (25 miles) away from the capital is now being harvested in a planned biannual cutting - a less-than-maximum harvest to ensure that the plant community will not be environmentally harmed. The field is part of an estimated 20,000-hectare papyrus forest (50,000 acres), and the annual harvest of papyrus is expected to measure 25 tons per hectare (10 tons per acre) per year. Since Kigali's requirement for domestic fuel is estimated at 5-6,000 tons per year, the amount of fuel available should be "more than needed in the foreseeable future," noted Martin.
In fact, plans have already been drawn up to establish a second briquetting factory to supplement the initial half-ton-per-hour output of the first, and though the pilot plant went up on the industrial outskirts of the capital, the second is targeted to be built adjacent to the papyrus valley itself.
Meanwhile, Martin and Jones noted, research is under way at Zaza, 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Kigali, into the possibility of again making paper from papyrus. More work may make it economically feasible to truck briquetted papyrus from Rwanda or The Sudan to mills to produce a paper similar to recycled paper, possibly at a lower cost than imports from Europe.
Other uses for the chopped and pressed reed are to make softboard, hardboard (with the addition of necessary resins) and fuel for tin-smelting. A long-term vision is to use the plant as a gasified alternative to petroleum products to power vehicles.
What's critically important about papyrus, is that it's a "renewable source of energy," noted Jones. "You can compare that with peat or oil or coal which, of course, are non-renewable."
Thousands of years have passed since papyrus was a highly valued commodity. But it may not be long before the tufted giant will make a name for itself once more. This time, though, it won't be in the throne rooms and libraries of potentates; it will be in the kitchens and modest homes of those who might otherwise be without fuel to cook their food and warm themselves.
Arthur Clark is a regular contributor to Aramco World magazine and a frequent visitor to Ireland.