For a cleaner wash from oil palm

Detergents get a boost from a palm additive.

THE detergent that you use to do your laundry may contain something from an unlikely source − oil palm. But fret not, it is not grease that you’re adding to your wash.

What is used in the detergent is a substance that is extracted from the empty fruit bunches (EFB) that are left behind after palm kernels have been harvested.

Malaysia has the distinction of having the world’s first facility that uses EFB to produce carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC), a common additive in detergent.

CMC can be extracted by various types of cellulose but Waris Nove uses the EFB of oil palms as the raw input as these have a high content of fibre which is rich in cellulose. From the cellulose produced, Waris Nove breaks it down further to CMC which is white, tasteless, odourless, non-toxic, water-soluble and biodegradable.

“Using renewable sources, namely the EFB, ensures sustainable and reliable supply. It also provides an alternative to fossil oil-based speciality chemicals,” said Waris Nove chief executive officer Razmi Alias.

“The CMC which we produce is of a grade that can be used as an additive to detergent to enhance the cleansing effect. It can fetch RM8,000 per tonne at current market prices.” Repels dirt

CMC is an anti-redeposition agent in detergent – it minimises the redeposition of dirt that has been removed by washing. It does this by increasing the negative charge on fibres such as cotton and rayon, causing them to repel dirt particles (which are positively charged).

CMC is a cheaper alternative to ethylene oxide, which is also added to detergents for the same purpose but is derived from petroleum. Anything which helps reduce the need for fossil fuels is better for the environment, so CMC is fast becoming the additive of choice for detergent manufacturers.

Waris Nove also markets EFB-based cellulose. The material enjoys wide demand because of its many industrial applications, for instance, it is the major constituent of paper. It also acts as the starting material for the production of regenerated fibres such as rayon and other cellulose derivatives, like esters.

The Waris Nove plant in Gebeng, Pahang, is a result of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) Transfer of Technology programme. Razmi said MPOB had completed its laboratory scale research and development for the process in 2003 and Waris Nove was incorporated the following year to commercialise the technology.

For two years from 2005, Waris Nove did a product and engineering feasibility study for the cellulose and CMC production process with MPOB input. In 2009, a pilot plant was set up to produce palm cellulose and CMC. A year later, a patent was granted (to MPOB) for the process and the installation of the actual plant was completed.

According to Razmi, various trials were conducted throughout 2011 and the plant received approvals from all the relevant agencies by August last year.

The process to produce CMC is not that complicated. The EFB is dried, shredded and subjected to a chemical pulping process to produce cellulose – this takes four hours. The cellulose then goes through an etherification process using emulsifiers to get the CMC.

Razmi said that three tonnes of EFB produce one tonne of cellulose which in turn gives 1.2 tonnes of CMC. (The extra mass is gained from the additives during the etherification process.)

Cellulose itself would fetch about RM3,200 per tonne, so it makes more sense to turn it into a higher-level product. In comparison, the market price for EFB currently hovers around RM30 to RM40 per tonne. Various uses

There are other higher-grade CMC that can be produced: as a suspending aid in sauces, cosmetics and beverages; a thickener for toothpaste and syrups; as water binders in ice-cream, ceramics, adhesive and baking products; as film former in textiles, paper coatings and lithographic solutions; as binders in bulk laxatives; and as wet tack in denture adhesives. CMC is also used in some pharmaceuticals.

Waris Nove now supplies CMC – marketed under the name Novelcell – to three local detergent companies and is looking into agreements to supply companies in Turkey, India and Japan. It plans to set up cellulose plants at designated locations, in order to supply raw materials to its CMC plant.

“Our capacity now is 400 tonnes per month but we are currently producing about 100 tonnes. In about six months, we should hit full capacity.

“We are also looking at enhancing our technical-grade CMC to food- and pharmaceutical-grade CMC,” said Razmi. He adds that the CMC that is used in the food industry fetches around RM20,000 per tonne while in pharmaceuticals, it hits the high end of RM25,000 to RM30,000.

Malaysia currently imports CMC, so the work of Waris Nove is helping to reduce the country’s capital outflow, not to mention giving a new use to waste.

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