Wageningen UR

Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research – Topics 2012

Turning Oil Palm waste into Valuable Products

An innovative biorefinery concept for the isolation of components from a palm-oil industry waste stream, i.e. empty fruit bunches, will result in valuable materials that can be converted into products with an even higher market value. The most valuable component is the cellulose fraction which can be isolated as a cellulose pulp. Besides being used for paper and board, this pulp can also be purified into dissolving cellulose pulp for the production of cellulose derivatives as found, for example, in the clothing industry and biobased plastics.

From ‘nuisance’ to valuable commodity

The oil palm produces fresh fruit bunches which are full of oil-containing fruits. After removal of these oil fruits the fresh fruit bunches are called empty fruit bunches (EFB). In Indonesia and Malaysia approximately 40 million tons of EFB aregenerated each year, but applications are limited because of the low calorific value, making it unsuitable for heat and power generation. Storage is also not easy and it is too bulky for transportation, resulting In large amounts of EFB being returned to plantations, partly for use as fertilizer. This cheap and abundantly available raw material is, however, very suitable as feed-stock for the production of valuable products.

Higher profits, smaller footprint

Financed by Biority B.V. and subsidized by the Dutch government, Food & Biobased Research started the GREENPALM project with a feasibility study for selection of an environmentally sound EFB pulping process. Key parameters were the efficiency of fractionation (e.g. quality of cellulose, hemicellulose and ligninfractions) and the ability to operateon a scale comparable to a palm-oilmill. From this study it was concluded that organosolv pulping was the most suitable option. The second phase was focused on the development of lab scale processes and techno economical evaluation. In this phase, proof of concept was demonstrated and the biorefinery concept was filed for patent application.“For dissolving cellulose pulp you need to isolate the cellulose with a high degree of polymerization and purity,” says Paulien Harmsen of Food & Biobased Research.“Normally this is done by using cottonor wood, materials that contain a lot of cellulose. We worked with EFB, a recalcitrant lignocellulosic material, which besides cellulose also contains hemicellulose, lignin and oil. By fine-tuning the pulpingprocess we succeeded in isolating the cellulose and also the other valuable fractions.” Based on this, pilot-scale production of high-grade cellulose pulp from EFB in Malaysia was initiated and is still in progress. Dissolving cellulosepulp from empty fruit bunches means higher profitability through the production of high-value products from low-value biomass, while improving the environmental footprint of a palm oil mill.

“The fact that biomass and in particular EFB from palm oil is worth investigating was pointed out to us by Food & Biobased Research as early as 2006,” says Floris Berkhout of Biority B.V. “We were early adopters of the research and have since presented the biorefinery concept to palm mill owners with promising reactions. We expect to be able to upscale the concept to an economically viable factory that will be used throughout the industry and together with FBR we plan to usethe same concept with other biomass.”

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