By Eur Ing Hong Wai Onn
The utilisation of palm oil is widespread as a vegetable oil and it is used in various industries such as food, personal care products, and biofuels. The production of palm oil has experienced a notable rise on a global scale, from 24 million tonnes in 2000/2001 to 77 million tonnes in 2022/2023 to satisfy the high demand for vegetable oils. The rise in demand for palm oil is attributed to several factors, including population growth, urbanisation, and the increasing recognition of the health advantages of natural oils.
In order to address the environmental, social, and economic challenges facing the palm oil industry and remain competitive in an ever-evolving market, the industry must prioritise innovation. The deployment of innovative technologies, processes, and business models has the potential to make the industry more environmentally sustainable and efficient.
Internet of Things can solve irrigation crisis
While oil palms are capable of withstanding short periods of drought, a prolonged drought stress usually results in reduced flowering as well as a decreased production of fresh fruit bunches, during the following harvesting cycles. With the advancement in the field of technology, it is now possible to optimise irrigation application decisions via the analysis of real-time field data. The dawn of new technologies, including the Internet of Things and sensors, along with the economies of scale, may soon offer a viable solution for providing water to plantations and thereby stabilising production.
The importance of digital technology in managing oil palm plantations has been widely recognised, but the lack of reliable internet connection has prevented significant progress in this area. With digitalisation and advancements in the wireless wide area network system, companies can look to capitalise on information and communications technology with a view to enhancing their production efficiency.
Biotechnology lowers nature occupation impact
Incorporating biotechnology in the palm oil milling process has the potential to be a game-changer for the industry. By using innovative biotech processes, producers could address many of the challenges faced in the current extraction process. This could lead to improved efficiency and reduced environmental impact. Biotechnology has the potential to unlock many new possibilities in the palm oil industry, and its adoption could prove to be a key driver of sustainable growth in the future. To illustrate, enzymes can break down the cell walls of the palm fruit, thereby improving the oil extraction efficiency, without changing the quality of crude palm oil.
For industrial-scale application, Sime Darby Plantation, the world’s largest certified sustainable palm oil producer, has been deploying this technology. Full-scale mill operations with an enzyme-aided oil extraction process achieve oil recovery of an additional 0.7 per cent. In turn, this extra production indirectly results in lower nature occupation impact.
From waste to renewable energy sources
By embracing innovation, the palm oil industry can make a significant contribution to the adoption of renewable energy, especially in light of its role as a significant greenhouse gas emitter. This shift toward renewable energy sources can help reduce the industry’s carbon footprint.
One innovative approach is to leverage technologies such as biogas generators to produce electricity from palm oil mill effluent (POME) generated during palm oil production. When POME is decomposed in the absence of oxygen, methane is formed. Methane is a biogas component with 25 times greater greenhouse potential than carbon dioxide if released directly into the atmosphere. Biogas generated in palm oil plantations can be harnessed as a renewable energy source for electricity production if properly captured. Although biogas power plants are already present in many plantations, the full potential of biogas has not yet been realised, possibly due to the high costs associated with building substations and high-tension lines in rural areas where palm oil mills are usually located. However, if the palm oil industry can take advantage of this renewable energy source, it will not only reduce carbon emissions but also provide affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for people living in rural areas.
During the production of crude palm oil, there are unavoidable oil losses, which result in the accumulation of palm sludge oil in the effluent treatment pond. Palm sludge oil, also known as POME, has the potential to become an excellent natural resource for the production of biodiesel. Biodiesel, an alternative to traditional petro-diesel fuel, can be produced from various triglyceride sources, including palm sludge oil. Studies suggest that biodiesel produced from palm sludge oil has a greenhouse gasses emission reduction potential of over 80 per cent as compared to petro-diesel fuels.
Biorefinery enables circular economy
The palm oil industry can explore innovative business models in addition to technological advancements. Circular economy principles, which aim to reduce waste and maximise resource efficiency in product and process design, can be a promising approach. By adopting such principles, the industry can effectively utilise agricultural biomass, conserve resources, and create new business opportunities.
As a case in point, palm oil industry can deploy biorefinery technology, which upgrades biomass such as oil palm trunks, oil palm fronds, empty fruit bunch, and palm kernel cake (PKC) into bioethanol. It reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 86 per cent compared to gasoline; however, it also has a higher octane number, providing premium bleeding properties, which enhances engine performance.
Furthermore, when PKC is used as feedstock in bioethanol production, a high-protein animal feed, distiller’s dried grain with solubles (DDGS), will be produced as a by-product. It is a residue of the yeast fermentation process. DDGS can replace corn and soybean meals in broiler diets without negative effects in performance.
Innovation is critical to the sustainability and competitiveness of the industry
To remain competitive in a constantly evolving market, the palm oil industry should prioritise implementing innovative solutions to tackle the challenges it faces. Through the adoption of innovative technologies, processes, and business models, the industry can improve its environmental sustainability and operational efficiency. Moreover, innovation can aid in dealing with the ecological and social concerns related to palm oil production, rendering it a more sustainable and ethical industry.
Eur Ing Hong Wai Onn is a chartered chemical engineer and a Fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers and the Royal Society of Chemistry. He is also the author of ‘A Chemical Engineer in the Palm Oil Milling Industry’.