Oil palm seeds - Credit : Getty Images

From palm oil residues to biofuel

Posted on 07 October 2015.

Palm oil production residues can be transformed into biofuels that are beyond reproach. Two researchers are leading the way...

Two EPFL researchers hope to produce a new generation of biofuels using palm oil production and other similar residues.

Two researchers from the EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Edgard Gnansounou and Jeganathan Kenthorai Raman, may well be able to give palm oil – often decried - back its integrity. The study they conducted demonstrates that palm oil production residues could be used to produce no less than 30 chemicals - 3 of which could be very useful indeed.

In practice, once harvested the palm fruit bundles are pressed to extract the oil – for use in cooking, some soaps, and in the composition of cosmetics and biofuels. But the fibrous residues are currently discarded once the oil has been extracted.

Hidden treasures in palm oil production residues

The work of the two EPFL researchers consisted of analyzing these residues and optimizing the chemical process for transforming them into useful products.

Waste from palm oil production can produce the following:
- Bioethanol, a biofuel for ethanol-based gasoline engines.
- Furfural, a compound used in industry. In particular, it is used as a solvent in petrochemical refining and in the manufacture of food flavorings.
- Lignin, a solid fuel.

The results of this study could well transform the world of biofuels, which is currently the focus of two main criticisms. Firstly, the price is too high because the production process is expensive. And growing crops such as beet exclusively to produce biofuels is to the detriment of food crops.

A new generation of biofuels

By making use of palm oil production residues, and other residues of the same type, the EPFL researchers hope to give birth to a new generation of biofuels from non-arable crops and agricultural waste that is presently incinerated or dumped in the fields - including rice husks, corn stems and leaves, wheat straw, etc.
Although at an embryonic stage, the proposed approach fits in well with the objectives set by the European Union for least 10% of fuels used for transport to come from renewable energy sources by 2020, and to provide increased support for bio-based chemicals.