IPlantE News

New tech pledges zero-waste palm oil production

20th Jun 2018

Engineers at The University of Nottingham Malaysia have developed a process that will limit the harmful waste from the production of palm oil, which is used in many household products and foodstuffs.

Palm oil has been subject of close examination in recent years after details emerged of severe environmental damage and deforestation caused by its production.

Malaysia, the second-largest producer of palm oil in the world, has around 400 mills producing environmentally-polluting waste, including kernel and husks from pressed fruits, discarded branches and waste water known as Palm Oil Mill Effluent (POME).

Researchers say that the new technology will mean zero waste-management for the mills, by converting all solid bio-mass waste and POME into building materials and bio-energy, a process known as the Integrated Waste Recovery and Regeneration System (REGEN).

The project, in collaboration with Malaysian industry partners, will turn waste into dried long fibre for matting, pallets, briquettes and biofuels, says project lead Professor Denny K S Ng, from Nottingham’s Faculty of Engineering in Malaysia.

He said: “In principle, there will be zero discharge from the entire mill process. We can also use the palm debris to make a bio-fertiliser that retains the nutrients from the palm tree, cutting chemical use and creating healthier soil. This in turn improves the palm fruit yield and the quality of the crude oil.”

The team are also exploring the possibility of recycling POME - a process that will turn the liquid effluent into water, partly to reuse in the milling process, but also to be purified into drinking water.

Despite considerable environmental risks in releasing it into the water cycle, Professor Mei Fong Chong from the university’s Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, says the process will prove sustainable and economical.

He said: “Around 30 million tonnes of wastewater is produced annually in the palm oil production process. Up to now most mills use a conventional ponding system for the treatment of the effluent but this system is polluting to the environment. The biogas it releases contributes to our global CO2 emissions. Our new IAAB technology processes the effluent efficiently and cleanly, and harnesses a valuable renewable energy source into the bargain.”

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