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The Onset of Biotechnology Transformation in the Oil and Fat Industry

Biotechnology could become a game-changing technology in sustainable oil and fat production

Alpha-Amylase, an enzyme that hydrolyses polysaccharides to glucose and maltose. Image by Leonid Andronov on Stock

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Biotechnology involves working with industrial enzymes to maximize and optimize existing operational processes.

Rudimentary biological solutions date back to at least 6,000 B.C. when Neolithic cultures fermented grapes to make wine, and Babylonians used microbial yeasts to make beer.

Over time, scientists’ knowledge of the various ways in which biotechnology can be used has increased, and it has already proven its important role in climate change mitigation. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, biotechnology can save energy and significantly reduce CO2 emissions. Products manufactured by leveraging biotechnology can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as laundry detergents that enable low-temperature washing and reduce energy use, pieces of bread that stay fresh longer and reduce food waste, and textiles produced with less water, energy, and traditional chemical usage to name a few.

Oils and fats are derived from plant or animal sources.

Primary sources of oils and fats include plant sources, such as palm, soybean, rapeseed, and sunflower oil; animal sources include tallow and lard. Oils and fats are used in a variety of applications ranging from food, personal care, and household to industrial and biofuels. The global oil and fat market is projected to grow by 4.26% per year between 2022 and 2030, attributed to the growing use in the food industry, additional demand in the biofuel industry, and greater awareness of the health properties of vegetable oils.

While it can justifiably be claimed that there were many improvements and changes in the oil and fat industry, it still appears to be an old-fashioned business driven by mechanical and chemical stimuli. Oil and fat production processes in general require not only large quantities of steam but also high temperatures and pressure, leading to high carbon emissions. In wake of the growing world population, the situation could worsen if the industry does not transform immediately.

This gives rise to the following question: can the oil and fat industry continue to remain as it is for the next decades, whilst still satisfying the growing demand for oils and fats?

If the answer is no, then we ought to rejuvenate our minds proactively and creatively to assist the industry in improving output and bottom lines. Fortunately, we can see incontestable signs of the wave of change riding on biotechnology in a few significant areas.

3D rendering with Imaris of oil-bearing cell walls. Intact cells are visible in the control sample (a) while enzyme-treated sample (b) is disrupted and has large areas devoid of cell walls. Image by Hemavathi Silvamany on IOPscience

More with the Same Quantity of Raw Materials

In traditional palm oil milling, fresh fruit bunches are sterilized and digested before the oil is mechanically extracted. The main objective of these processes is to break up oil-bearing cells to facilitate better oil release. Biotechnology, if applied to the milling operation, has the potential to become a groundbreaking technology that benefits producers and addresses many of the challenges the industry faces today, particularly with respect to extraction. It could also soften and break down the cellulose and hemicellulose matrixes in the oil-bearing cell walls, enabling easier oil release without changing the quality of crude palm oil.

Biotechnology can be adopted with just a few steps and reasonable capital investment, significantly improving the bottom line. Sime Darby Plantation, the world’s largest certified sustainable palm oil producer, has been deploying this technology for industrial-scale application. Full-scale mill operations with a biotechnology-aided oil extraction process record promising oil yield increases. Sustainability-wise, the biotechnology-aided palm oil extraction process could reduce greenhouse gas emissions while facilitating lower nature occupation impact.

Enzyme yields higher-quality shortenings with no color changes, low diglycerides, and fewer byproducts. Image by Novozymes

Healthier and Higher-quality Product

Trans fats are associated with heart disease, which leads to millions of deaths every year. Not only the World Health Organization has launched a very public campaign to eliminate trans fats, but regulatory authorities in many countries are increasingly undertaking measures in place to reduce and even eliminate trans fats. The formation of trans fats takes place when manufacturers utilize a partial hydrogenation process for imparting correct melting properties and shelf stability to the margarines.

A special process referred to as interesterification uses either chemicals or enzymes and can avoid the formation of trans fats. However, the chemical process has its limitation, including chemicals used are corrosive bases that require proper handling to avoid danger. On the other hand, biotechnology obviates the need for chemicals, washing, or post-bleaching. It produces relatively less wastewater, involves fewer steps, and reduces energy costs. Through biotechnology, manufacturers can get the right shelf-life, flavor, and melting characteristics, alongside oils with better color profiles in comparison to chemical processes all the while removing trans fats from the products.

Image by Scharfsinn86 on iStock

Flexibility Around the Quality of Feedstocks

Biodiesel, produced from different triglyceride sources, is an alternative petro-diesel fuel. It is typically produced by a two-stage chemical process called esterification followed by a transesterification system. Although effective, hazardous, and costly esterification through acid catalysis or high and pressure thermal glycerolysis is always concerning for biodiesel producers. Additionally, the traditional process restricts producers to only low-free fatty acid and high-cost feedstocks, such as refined soybean and palm oil.

However, the landscape has changed with biotechnology. Biotechnology can simultaneously catalyze the transesterification of glycerides and the esterification of free fatty acids at low temperatures and ambient pressure. This, in turn, offers flexibility to biodiesel producers in relation to the choice of feedstock quality. Biotechnology has proven its ability to make a difference and is presently used in more than 30 biodiesel plants worldwide.

Hydrolysis of triglycerides in three-step reaction periods. Image by Gürkan Sin on MDPI

Greener Oleochemical Production

Fatty acids, one of the basic oleochemicals, comprise the structural components of oils and fats. They have various applications in various industries, such as soap and detergents, plastic, personal care, and rubber. Fatty acids can be derived from tallow, coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil through fat splitting, such as the Colgate-Emery process. This is not only a robust process but also energy intensive.

By leveraging biotechnology, it is now possible to operate fat splitting more sustainably. The feedstock is partially hydrolyzed before feeding into a thermal fat splitter using a simple biotechnology-driven pre-splitting process. This process improves the thermal splitting reaction time by overcoming the initial lag phase in the thermal splitting process, which is caused by the slow reaction of fat and water in a heterogeneous phase. Biotechnology boosts the thermal fat-splitting process, saving energy and water and delivering the same degree of splitting.

An oleochemical plant in Indonesia. Photo by Cepsa

Natural Product with Sustainable Method

Fatty alcohol is mainly used to produce detergents, surfactants, and personal care products. There are two types of fatty alcohol, namely synthetic and natural. While synthetic fatty alcohol is derived from petroleum products, natural fatty alcohol is mainly derived from vegetable oils such as palm kernel oil and coconut oil. The methyl ester route, among others, is typically used to produce natural fatty alcohol. For example, a strong organic base catalyst such as methoxide converts refined vegetable oil to methyl ester, and fatty alcohol is produced by hydrogenating methyl ester. Although it is cost-efficient, high yield loss is concerning for the producers.

However, the chemical process is seamlessly replaceable by biotechnology. While biotechnology is still in its infancy stage in this area, it has significant disruptive potential. Biotechnology could improve overall yield due to the direct transesterification of crude vegetable oil to methyl ester, skipping the refining stage. Biotechnology could also help reduce carbon emissions due to its milder operation condition.

The biotechnology transformation journey has just begun.

When applied to the oil and fat industry, biotechnology could become a game-changing technology that not only boosts the efficiency of operations but also the sustainability profile of the industry by propelling low-carbon initiatives. Considering potential knock-on effects, potentially new emerging applications, and additional breakthroughs, the full potential of biotechnology could be far larger than anticipated.

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”.

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Eur Ing Hong Wai Onn

Eur Ing Hong Wai Onn

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