A research team from Nottingham University’s Malaysia branch has developed two new process technologies to produce building materials and bioenergy from palm oil process waste.

As the world’s second largest palm oil producer after Indonesia, Malaysia produced a massive amount of waste from its palm oil industry annually, including kernels and husks from pressed fruits, discarded branches, and wastewater mixed with organic matter known as palm oil mill effluent (POME), The Engineer reported on 18 May.

To address the waste problem, the researchers developed a zero waste management system for palm oil mills, called the Integrated Waste Recovery and Regeneration System (REGEN).

The system converted all solid biomass waste and POME from palm oil processing into building material and bioenergy, said professor Denny K S Ng from the Faculty of Engineering at Nottingham University Malaysia.

“Once it is commercialised, our technology will enable palm oil processing facilities to turn oil palm fronds, trunks and empty fruit bunched into dried long fibre for matting, pallets, briquettes and biofuels,” he said.

“We can also use the palm debris to make a biofertiliser that retains the nutrients from the palm tree, cutting chemical use and creating healthier soil. This in turn improves the palm fruit yield and the quality of the crude oil.”

In addition to REGEN, the team also developed what they called the Integrated Anaerobic-Aerobic Bioreactor (IAAB) to recycle POME, which as a raw effluent posed significant environmental risks and required extensive treatment before it could be released into the water cycle.

The IAAB process turned POME into water that could be reused in the palm oil milling process and that could be further purified into potable water, alongside digesting the organic matter in POME to create methane that could be harvested and further processed into biofuel.

Mei Fong Chong from Nottingham University Malaysia’s Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering said palm oil production produced roughly 30M tonnes/year of wastewater.

“Up to now, most mills have used a conventional ponding system for the treatment of effluent, but this system is polluting the environment. The biogas it releases contributes to our global CO2 emissions. Our new IAAB technology processes the effluent efficiently and cleanly, and harnesses a valuable renewable energy source,” Chong said.