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Zero-waste palm oil industry on the horizon with new technology

Engineers at the University of Nottingham Malaysia have developed new technology to help the global palm oil processing industry reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and create renewable energy from its waste. In collaboration with Malaysian industry partners, researchers have built a unique integrated zero-waste management system for the palm oil mill integrating various technologies which convert all solid biomass waste and palm oil mill effluent (POME) into valuable products and bioenergy.

Professor Denny Ng, University of Nottingham Malaysia, Faculty of Engineering at the Integrated Anaerobic Aerobic Bioreactor (IAAB) Pilot Plant (photo courtesy University of Nottingham Malaysia).

According to the National Biomass Strategy, Malaysia’s output of palm biomass is expected to increase to 100 million dry tonnes by 2020. By combining resources, know-how and capabilities, this joint venture can fully undertake projects large and small to recover and optimise Malaysia’s palm oil waste value, said Professor Graham Kendall, Provost at the University of Nottingham Malaysia.

Malaysia is the second-largest crude palm oil producer in the world and fulfils nearly half of all demand for the oil, which is now used in a huge variety of foodstuffs and household products. In Malaysia, there are more than 400 palm oil mills and each produces large amounts of residuals, including palm kernel shell (PKS) and mesocarp fibre from the oil palm fruitlet, empty fruit bunches (EFB) and wastewater known as palm oil mill effluent (POME).

REGEN pilot plant

Researchers at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, in collaboration with Malaysian industry partners, have built a unique integrated zero-waste management system for the palm oil mill. Called an Integrated Recovery and Regeneration System (REGEN), the pilot plant integrates various technologies which convert all solid biomass waste and POME into valuable products and bioenergy.

The by-products of palm oil production have long been a problem for the industry and the environment, so we hope our new technology will be a best practice example of what can be achieved in the drive for sustainability. In principle, there will be zero discharge from the entire mill process. Once it is commercialised, our technology will enable palm oil processing facilities to turn oil palm biomasses into various products, such as dried long fibre for mats, pallets, briquettes and biofuels. We can also use the empty fruit bunches to make bio-fertiliser that retains the nutrients from the palm tree, cutting chemical use and creating healthier soil. This in turn improves the overall palm fruit yield and the quality of the crude oil, said Project Lead, Professor Denny K. S. Ng from the University’s Faculty of Engineering in Malaysia.

Innovative POME treatment

In tandem with the biomass processing technology, the project has also been investigating how to recycle POME. The raw effluent is a serious pollutant that requires effective treatment to meet government discharge limits before being released into the watercourse.

Professor Mei Fong Chong, from the University’s Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering in Malaysia, has developed a POME treatment system known as Integrated Anaerobic-Aerobic Bioreactor (IAAB) to solve the issue. The IAAB turns the liquid effluent into water which can be reused in the palm oil milling process, or which can be further purified into clean drinking water.

According to the University, the IAAB is also innovative because it integrates anaerobic and aerobic processes to digest the organic matter in the POME to meet the discharge limit. This activity generates methane as a by-product, which the novel IAAB system simultaneously recovers and converts a high-quality biogas for use as fuel.

Around 30 million tonnes of wastewater are produced annually in the palm oil processing facilities. Up to now, most mills use a conventional ponding system for the treatment of the effluent but this system is ineffective and huge footprint. The biogas is released from the open ponding and contributed to our global CO2 emissions. Our new IAAB technology treats POME efficiently and cleanly and harnesses a valuable renewable energy source into the bargain, Professor Chong said

REGEN system is one of the key projects in University’s Centre of Sustainable Palm Oil Research (CESPOR) based at the Malaysia campus near Kuala Lumpur. CESPOR is a multi-disciplinary research centre which focuses on palm oil, from plantation to waste treatment. The centre is working in close collaboration with Malaysian companies, Eureka Synergy Sdn.Bhd. and Havys Oil Mill Sdn.Bhd.

This collaboration is vital for sustainable palm oil research, particularly palm biomass. Malaysia’s Government has set a national target to reduce 40 percent of CO2 emissions by 2020. Moreover, the Department of Environment (DOE) has begun enforcing the mandate for proper waste disposal and treatment for all of Malaysia’s 400 palm oil mills. So, we are well-placed to help individual palm oil mills to meet the DOE’s regulatory parameters for appropriate waste treatment, said Dr David Lim Lian Keong, Managing Director of Eureka Synergy Sdn Bhd,

Datuk Michael Lim Lian Seng, Managing Director of Havys Oil Mill Sdn. Bhd., added that from a national perspective, the implementation of more biomass and biogas projects will ultimately recover and prevent millions of tonnes of waste from polluting the environment.

With the knowledge and expertise of the parties involved in this collaboration, we aim to develop the means to convert renewable energy through various strategies which will subsequently benefit the nation, said Datuk Michael Lim Lian Seng.

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