Palm oil can also be used as a source of renewable energy such as biofuels and biogas.
EVERY day we consume palm oil whether we realise it or not. Despite numerous negative talk about the local palm oil industry, palm oil is still an essential ingredient in our daily lives.
Palm oil is used in the food we eat as well as in the cosmetics and household products that we use daily.
There are a few steps that have to be undertaken before palm oil-based resources can be converted into renewable energy.
Biofuels are produced from oil palm biomass such as the empty fruit bunches (EFBs) which are readily available at the palm oil mills, as well as oil palm trunks or stems and fronds that are available in plantations.
These materials have to be collected and sent to centralised processing plants for pre-treatment processes before they can be converted to value-added products, such as biofuels.
Meanwhile, biogas is naturally generated from the fermentation process during palm oil mill effluent (POME) treatment processes.
Biogas contains about 60 per cent of methane, 35 per cent carbon dioxide and the balance is other gases such as hydrogen sulphide.
The POME can generate biogas which can be trapped or captured and used to generate electricity or as heat source.
Felda Global Ventures Holdings Bhd president and chief executive officer Datuk Sabri Ahmad told Business Times in an interview recently that there are many ways to trap methane gas.
One of the simplest ways is to cover the POME ponds with tarpaulin or high-density polyethylene sheet and pass the gas to the gas engine to generate electricity.
The gas can also be channelled into the oil mill boiler that can generate heat energy for the use of oil mills.
"If we trap methane gas, it will help in terms of lowering carbon emission and when the gas is collected, it can generate electricity," Sabri said, adding that the process takes about two years.
"If you generate the gas into the oil mill boiler, then you release the palm shell and mesocarp fibre that is used to burn in the boiler. The shell and mesocarp fibre can be sold and you can get additional income," he added.
There are some places in Malaysia which are dependant on oil palm renewable energy.
The Sahabat biomass power plant in Lahad Datu, Sabah, which was set up in 2001, for example, is one of the EFB-based clean development mechanism projects in Malaysia.
It is able to generate 7.2 megawatts (MW) of electricity for use by the nearby industries as well as domestic consumers. It also supplies 16 tonnes of steam for Felda mills.
Another example is Felda's joint-venture project with Tenaga Nasional Bhd called FTJ Bio Power Sdn Bhd.
FTJ Bio Power is a RM120 million biomass-based power generation plant in Jengka, Pahang, to generate 12MW of electricity using purely EFBs. A total of 10MW of the capacity will be supplied to the national grid.
Sabri said on average, a 60-tonne- per-hour capacity palm oil mill can generate about 1.8MW to 2MW of electricity from the captured biogas.
There are many palm oil mills throughout the country that are already trapping methane gas. More are also being built.
Industry observers said the palm oil industry is facing the challenge on how to channel and inject the electricity to the national grid.
This is because some of the mills are located in very remote areas which are far from the main grid. Thus, industry players need to invest money to get the cable from mills to the grid.
Many would wonder. Since Malaysia has direct sunlight and rain throughout the year that can be used as sources of renewable energy, why should palm oil be used instead?
Sabri said energy sources from oil palm are sustainable and the cost to generate it is lower than using solar energy or hydroelectric energy.
He added that the cost to convert methane gas into energy could cost RM15 million per mill, depending on the technology used.
Sabri said palm oil energy can complement the fossil fuel energy by contributing to a certain percentage, which in a small way will make the country's electricity generation more sustainable and environment friendly.
"We cannot replace coal-fired power plant, but palm oil can complement instead," he said.
The palm oil industry has considerable potential to support the nation's economy through the provision of renewable energy as well as through traditional export of agriculture commodities.
Sabri, however, cautioned that the quantum is quite small currently.
Meanwhile, oil palm biomass can also be processed further to extract specific sugar, which in turn can be processed further to produce bio-ethanol to substitute petro-gasoline or to extract bio-based chemicals.
"We need to convert it into industrial sugar through the fermentation or other processes. We also need to put back the biomass into the soil to make sure that the soil fertility and structure of soil are not being affected," he said.
The challenge for this industry, Sabri said, is to organise economical logistics to make sure that the biomass are collected and brought to a central factory or processing plant, while at the same time, providing opportunities to generate new jobs and create new business opportunities.