Agriculture plays an important role in the economies of most of the countries in the Middle East. The contribution of the agricultural sector to the overall economy varies significantly among countries in the region, ranging, for example, from about 3.2 percent in Saudi Arabia to 13.4 percent in Egypt. Large scale irrigation is expanding, enabling intensive production of high value cash and export crops, including fruits, vegetables, cereals, and sugar.
The term ‘crop residues’ covers the whole range of biomass produced as by-products from growing and processing crops. Crop residues encompasses all agricultural wastes such as bagasse, straw, stem, stalk, leaves, husk, shell, peel, pulp, stubble, etc. Wheat and barley are the major staple crops grown in the Middle East region. In addition, significant quantities of rice, maize, lentils, chickpeas, vegetables and fruits are produced throughout the region, mainly in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Date palm is one of the principal agricultural products in the arid and semi-arid region of the world, especially Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The Arab world has more than 84 million date palm trees with the majority in Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and United Arab Emirates. Date palm trees produce huge amount of agricultural wastes in the form of dry leaves, stems, pits, seeds etc. A typical date tree can generate as much as 20 kilograms of dry leaves per annum while date pits account for almost 10 percent of date fruits. Some studies have reported that Saudi Arabia alone generates more than 200,000 tons of date palm biomass each year.
In Egypt, crop residues are considered to be the most important and traditional source of domestic fuel in rural areas. These crop residues are by-products of common crops such as cotton, wheat, maize and rice. The total amount of residues reaches about 16 million tons of dry matter per year. Cotton residues represent about 9% of the total amount of residues. These are materials comprising mainly cotton stalks, which present a disposal problem. The area of cotton crop cultivation accounts for about 5% of the cultivated area in Egypt.
Large quantities of crop residues are produced annually in the Middle East, and are vastly underutilised. Current farming practice is usually to plough these residues back into the soil, or they are burnt, left to decompose, or grazed by cattle. These residues could be processed into liquid fuels or thermochemical processed to produce electricity and heat in rural areas. Energy crops, such as Jatropha, can be successfully grown in arid regions for biodiesel production. Infact, Jatropha is already grown at limited scale in some Middle East countries and tremendous potential exists for its commercial exploitation.
A wide range of thermal and biochemical technologies exists to convert the energy stored in agricultural wastes into useful forms of energy. Thermochemical conversion technologies like combustion, gasification and pyrolysis can yield steam, syngas, bio oil etc. On the other hand, the high volatile solids content in agro wastes can be transformed into biogas in anaerobic digestion plants, possibly by codigestion with MSW, sewage sludge, animal wastes and/and food wastes. The cellulosic content in agricultural residues can be transformed into biofuel (bioethanol) by making use of the fermentation process. In addition, the highly organic nature of agricultural wastes makes it highly suitable for compost production which can be used to replace chemical fertilizers in agricultural farms. Thus, abundance of agro residues in the Middle East can catalyze the development of biomass energy sector in the region.