Reimagining palm biomass into wealth

  • Opinion
  • Wednesday, 31 Jan 2018

Fronds, trunks, empty fruit bunches (EFB), palm kernel shell (PKS), palm mesocarp fibre, palm kernel cake (PKC) and palm oil mill effluent (POME) are biomass from palm oil production that most Malaysians are unfamiliar with.

Hence, many are also unaware of the vast opportunities to turn palm biomass into wealth.

In the National Biomass Strategy (NBS) 2020 launched in 2011, the palm oil sector was identified as the largest producer of biomass, estimated at 83 million dry tonnes in 2011 and eventually growing to about 100 million dry tonnes in 2020.

The majority of palm biomass is returned to the field.

Trunks are left behind during replanting, fronds are neatly stacked after harvesting and EFB are returned to the field for mulching. These measures aid moisture protection and return valuable nutrients to the soil.

Meanwhile, PKS and fibre are commonly used as fuel for mill boilers while PKC is sold primarily as low-value cattle feed.

As a best practice, POME must undergo the process of residue oil removal as well as anaerobic treatment to reduce biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) to 100 parts per million (ppm) to comply with our stringent environment quality regulations.

The anaerobic process creates methane, a harmful greenhouse gas (GHG) that must be removed before the remaining carbon dioxide is released.

The waste to wealth pathway is multi-pronged, ranging from immediate opportunities to generate wood products, pellets and bioenergy to longer term prospects to make advanced biofuels and bio-based chemicals.

NBS 2020 set a stretched target to turn 20 million tonnes of palm biomass into higher value products that will create an incremental gross national income (GNI) of RM30bil and 66,000 new jobs while attracting RM25 billion in investment and reducing carbon emission by 12%, by 2020.

An agency previously under my care in the Prime Minister’s Department, Agensi Inovasi Malaysia, is leading the delivery of NBS 2020 while the Palm Oil and Rubber National Key Economic Area (NKEA) aims for all mills to have biogas plants and promotes the development of bio-based chemicals and biofuels as a means of turning waste into wealth.

Abundant opportunities

While not without its challenges, our efforts under the NKEA is heading in the right direction.

From only 28 mills with biogas plants in 2010, we have seen a three-fold increase to 94 mills currently with eight more under construction and 144 under planning.

While most of these biogas plants merely flare the methane or use it to fuel their boilers, 24 of these mills are also generating electricity and sending their surplus energy to the grid under the Feed-In-Tariff (FIT) programme, compared to only one in 2010.

Three more biogas plants are being built for grid connection while another 22 are at the planning stage.

We can do more as just in Peninsular Malaysia alone, another 112 mills can potentially supply energy to the grid, subject to an adequate FIT quota for biogas.

As a matter of policy, all new mills and existing mills seeking expansion of capacity must have biogas plants to obtain approval and in time, all other mills will also have to comply.

Non-compliance comes with a price.

Methane release is one of two factors that the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) of the United States incorporated in its lifecycle GHG emission reduction analysis.

Be that as it may, merely providing fuel for boilers and sending power to the grid do not necessarily make biogas an appealing proposition for all mills.

Hence, MPOB successfully piloted a project in Felda Sg Tengi that produces 80,000 MMBTU of bio-compressed natural gas (CNG) per year for industrial use.

This offers mills that are located too far away from the grid a viable option to create more value from their biogas.

This whole process will ensure that we are able to keep to our renewable energy commitments under COP 21 and also ensure that palm oil waste is properly disposed.

Further, the value opportunity is tangible with the FIT initiative.

As technology is reasonably mature, the cost of developing infrastructure relatively low and the payback of five to seven years relatively quick, pellets are a natural entry point for palm biomass.

Asia’s demand for pellets is expected to touch 10 million tonnes per annum, driven primarily by green energy policies in South Korea, China and Japan. Pellets also act as a springboard for palm biomass into higher value biofuels and bio-based chemicals.

Reimagining biomass

Unlike existing technologies that use food ingredients such as palm oil as inputs, second-generation technologies are predicated on the use of non-food, lignocellulosic biomass.

The risk is still relatively high as the technologies to convert lignocellulosic biomass to bioethanol and subsequently to bio-based chemicals are only beginning to mature. At the same time, other pathways await discovery and development.

For example, I recently came across a closed loop and modular in-situ process using existing technologies that utilise methane from POME to fuel conversion of EFP and fibre into cellulose that is used to produce bio plastics, fabric, paint and medicinal applications.

In other words, we have identified technologies that can turn biomass into plastic, clothes and paint.

This is momentous as it immediately elevates the value proposition of biomass.

On the energy front, as a complement to domestic and imported gas, it is entirely plausible to consider producing and injecting bio-CNG into our gas pipeline to be supplied to industries, homes and even power plants.

Perhaps biomass-to-energy can power our various rail systems.

It is also not unthinkable to have advanced biofuels produced from palm biomass to fuel aircraft, as such conversion technologies are emerging.

Just like how oil palm was initially farmed for edible oil but lengthened its value chain into nutrition, energy and chemicals, I envision palm biomass will take a similar route over time.

We must remember palm oil has a 100-year history in Malaysia and its downstream only took off in a big way in the past 30 years.

The palm biomass is at the start of the runway but reimaging palm biomass into wealth is inevitable.

So, despite the constant attacks against palm oil by its detractors, we continue to focus on developing the many derivative industries that owe its origins to the simple yet stoic oil palm tree.

Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong is Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities. Commodities Today and Beyond is his op-ed to share his views, hope and vision for commodities with everyday Malaysians.

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