Malaysian Palm Oil Board biomass research bears fruit

  • R&D strategies for high-income, zero waste and value-addition
  • Commercialisation of biomass for high-value uses fraught with challenges

By G Danapal

Biomass represents a tremendous opportunity to revolutionise almost every industry, replacing energy, chemicals and products that have long relied on petroleum and conventional chemicals. And Malaysia is in a position to harness this potential in a dramatic way through the palm oil industry, the major producer of biomass.

However, because palm biomass and its products have not been commercially exploited to the extent of becoming significant export products, this biomass has not gained international attention.

“Interest in the utilisation of ligno­cellulosic biomass, particularly from crop residues, intensified in recent years because of the shift towards renewable, green and low-carbon products,” says Datuk Dr Choo Yuen May, director-general of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB).

This interest, she adds, has generated attention on the oil palm industry, leading to the launch of the National Biomass Strategy along with the setting up of the Oil Palm Biomass Centre (OPBC) in November 2011.

She notes that the potential of oil palm biomass was recognised by the MPOB over 20 years ago when it formulated a three-pronged research and development strategy, covering high income, zero waste and value-addition.

The zero waste strategy, she says, sought to achieve total utilisation of all biomass generated by the oil palm industry.

Choo says MPOB did numerous research projects relating to exploitation of the biomass. For biocomposite products, it established a Biomass Technology Centre which has its own medium-density fibreboard pilot plant and other biomass processing facilities.

Over the years, the research carried out by MPOB and its collaborators include pulp and paper, particle board, plywood, blockboard, lumber, fibre reinforced polyethylene sheets for automobiles, fibre-filled dampening sheets for automobiles and cellulose and carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC).

In fertiliser applications, MPOB introduced its innovative replanting technique to optimise the use of biomass during replanting as a source of nutrients for the oil palms.

MPOB has also developed fertiliser formulations such as the MPOB F4, which uses oil palm biomass as a component, and conducted research on production of compost and high-value compost, specifically vermicompost.

In the area of bioenergy applications, MPOB conducted research and development (R&D) on the production of bioethanol, biogas, bio-oils, briquettes, pellets and combustible gases through gasification.

As for biochemicals, it has collaborations on the production of cellullose, microcrystalline cellulose and CMC, xylitol and other chemicals from empty fruit bunches.

“We are collaborating with home-grown company WarisNove Sdn Bhd for the production of cellulose and its derivative, the CMC,” she says.

The company, which has commissioned its commercial plant in the Gebeng Industrial Area, Pahang, has developed prototype products – Novelcell cellulose and Novelcell CMC – and has ventured into agreements to commercialise the products in local and overseas market for the detergent industry.

Choo says MPOB has commercialised a number of other R&D pro­jects on oil palm biomass, including the use of polyethylene sheets in various parts of the car such as the rear parcel shelf and the use of oil palm trunk veneer for plywood and medium-density fibreboard.

JOINING HANDS TO  STRENGTHEN  BIOMASS INDUSTRY: Witnessed by Plantation Industries and Commodities Deputy Minister Datuk Hamzah Zainuddin (2nd, left) and the ministry’s deputy secretary-general (management) Mohamad Sanuri Shahid (3rd, left), MPOB’s Datuk Dr Choo Yuen May (left) and Nippon Palm Corp Sdn Bhd managing director Masako Nozoe seal an agreement for research and development in engineered palm plywood to enhance the quality of the product (photo credit: MPOB)

More recently, it signed a R&D and commercialisation agreement with C.H.E. Metal Works Sdn Bhd to develop and adapt processing technologies of oil palm biomass pre-treatment and power generation. This collaboration would support efforts in exploiting oil palm biomass for various applications, in particular renewable energy.

For R&D in engineered palm plywood as a strategic move to expand and enhance the quality of such a product, MPOB recently inked an agreement with Nippon Palm Corporation Sdn Bhd.

The challenge now is to commercialise high-value products. “Further development of biomass products and the successful commercialisation of oil palm biomass for many high-value applications are fraught with issues and challenges,” says Choo. “Among them are logistics, reliability of raw material supply, costs and availability of mature technologies.”

She points out that what the palm oil industry needs is investment in technology and development of downstream industry to harness the industry’s biomass resource, thereby increasing the incomes of producers and contributing to Malaysia’s economic growth.

To further encourage investment and active collaboration between investors (both foreign and domestic) and the suppliers of biomass (invariably palm oil mills and plantations), new projects can qualify for pioneer status, enjoying tax exemptions for statutory income for the first ten years from commercial production. And these new projects can also qualify for exemption on import duties for imported machinery and raw materials, in recognition of the international collaborative efforts required to develop the sector.

These efforts have already borne fruit, thanks in large part to the Malaysian Investment Development Authority (MIDA) and the palm oil industry. Foreign investors have also recognised the potential, with Japan, the US and Europe leading the investment in Malaysia’s biomass sector, reflecting the latest recognition yet of the commercial potential of Malaysian biomass.