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How can biological solutions help accelerate the sustainability transition of the palm oil industry?

Biological solutions can help to upgrade palm oil biomass and reduce carbon emissions to battle the climate crisis.

Oil palm plantation. Image by Adiartana on iStock

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil, derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree.

It is an agricultural commodity produced at a large scale, consumed and traded globally. In order to satisfy the high demand for vegetable oils, global palm oil production has increased significantly from 24 million tonnes in 2000/2001, to 73 million tonnes in 2020/2021. Such an increase in the demand for palm oil has occurred because it is relatively cheap and versatile, both in its edible and non-edible industrial applications.

Although the industry has taken actions to improve its sustainability and set new standards, including the recently launched standard that covers the traceability of palm oil biomass material along the chain of custody, it is still frequently associated with unsustainable environmental pressures. Therefore, biological solutions, among others, can be a catalyst for the sustainability transition of the palm oil industry, rendering it more sustainable and environmentally sound in a climate-action world.

A bioethanol plant in Brazil. Image by Biofuels Digest

Second-generation bioethanol from cellulosic biomass

When applied to the palm oil industry, biological solutions could become a game-changing technology that boosts the sustainability profile of the industry through low-carbon initiatives. Palm oil biomass, including oil palm frond, empty fruit bunch (EFB), palm kernel cake (PKC), and pressed fibre, are all sources of cellulosic biomass. When cellulosic biomass is broken down into pulp in a pre-treatment step, enzymes can efficiently hydrolyze cellulose and hemicellulose into simple sugars. Yeasts can then ferment simple sugars into cellulosic ethanol (also known as second-generation bioethanol). Just like first-generation bioethanol production, ethanol is removed from the fermentation broth by the distillation process. In terms of benefits, cellulosic ethanol can not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 86% compared to gasoline, but it also has a higher octane number that enhances engine performance.

Although it seems like fiction, Raizen proves that it is technically and commercially viable to produce cellulosic ethanol. The global leader in the production of first- and second-generation bioethanol has already sold 1 billion liters of second-generation bioethanol. In 2021, Indonesia and Malaysia produced approximately 6 million tonnes (dry weight) of cellulosic biomass. If all of this had been used for bioethanol production, it would have translated to around 14% of the United States’ consumption in 2020.

Broiler chickens in a poultry farm. Image by Kalinovskiy on iStock

Bioethanol co-product as poultry feed

When PKC is used as feedstock in bioethanol production, a high-protein animal feed, a 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.

Broiler meat is the staple food in Indonesia and Malaysia. In 2021, both countries imported 6.7 million tonnes of soybean meal for the poultry industry. When upgrading all PKC produced by these two countries, it is expected to offset at least 70% of imported soybean meal. Furthermore, while there has been no specific environmental study done on this, researchers have found that DDGS diets in other industries have a lower carbon footprint than the standard corn-soybean meal diet. Transforming PKC into a protein-rich animal feed would not only promote better utilization of agricultural biomass but also help achieve our societal goals on climate.

Bioplastic is revolutionary

Petroleum-based plastics have grown faster than any other materials for several decades, and the plastic sector will account for 20% of total oil consumption by 2050. Palm oil biomass can be a solution to this matter.

The simple sugars produced from enzyme hydrolysis of cellulosic biomass can also form sustainable building blocks for other products, such as bio-based monoethylene glycol (MEG). MEG is one of the components in polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which has numerous applications and is the most widely-used material for plastic beverage bottles. While it is common to produce bio-based MEG from hardwood feedstock taken from sawmills and other wood industry side-streams, Petronas, one of Fortune Global 500’s largest corporations in the world, proves that it is feasible to convert palm oil biomass into green chemistry. If all EFBs produced in this region were used for bio-based MEG production and then PET bottle manufacturing, it would amount to about 0.5% of the PET bottles used in London yearly. This makes bioplastic attractive in terms of emissions, which is evidenced by Coca-Cola using it in its plant bottles. Furthermore, Danone has claimed that its plant bottles provide a possible 75% greenhouse gas emissions savings compared to petroleum-based plastics. So, it has the potential to revolutionize the bioplastic market.

Biological solutions can help the sustainability transition of the palm oil industry.

It is clear that biological solutions can help to upgrade palm oil biomass. Biological solutions will not only revolutionize the industry with efficient and sustainable processes but also has a role in tackling global climate change. Nonetheless, these processes are currently more expensive than their non-sustainable alternatives because they are not fully scaled yet; they face an underdeveloped market and experience intense competition from fossil fuel solutions that are highly efficient and enjoy economies of scale. Therefore, we as scientists and engineers have a significant and imperative role to play in developing, scaling, and optimizing processes with biological solutions.

Biological solutions can help the sustainability transition of the palm oil industry

Eur Ing Hong Wai Onn, 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”. Make sure you check out this other interesting article:

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Eur Ing Hong Wai Onn

A chartered chemical engineer and a Fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers and the Royal Society of Chemistry. Website at https://hongwaionn.com/