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Turning palm oil waste into eco-friendly biofuels

13 March 2019

A team of researchers from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, backed by the UK government Newton Fund, have been using ISIS Neutron and Muon Source to develop a method of converting palm oil biomass waste into green biofuels – hopefully reducing Indonesia’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Palm oil is a vital ingredient in Indonesia’s food industry but, as the rest of the planet has become increasingly reliant on it – using it in everything from foods to cosmetics – it has also attracted a great deal of controversy. Although palm oil has many advantages over other oils, with its high yield per hectare and high resistance to oxidation (meaning it has a long shelf life), the areas where it is grown (mainly Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand) are rain forested regions of great biodiversity that are being threatened by the monoculture nature of the palm oil plantations.

As part of its drive to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels, the Indonesian government has pledged to ensure that all filling stations in Indonesia make the switch from diesel fuel to a biofuel fuel blend. Palm oil is already used as a source for biofuels such as biodiesel, but its environmental impact makes palm oil-derived fuel’s credentials as a ‘green’ source of energy dubious to say the least.

The palm oil industry is hugely wasteful, with the oil extracted making up as little as ten percent of the total biomass produced – meaning as much as 90 per cent of that biomass is classified as waste. Eliminating palm oil production is likely to be impractical, so making better use of plantations by eliminating the waste while decreasing Indonesia’s reliance on fossils fuels is a win-win situation. This is where Dr Indri Adilina, a researcher from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), comes in.

Dr Adilina and her team are hoping to develop a method of converting palm oil biomass waste into fuel in place of the palm oil itself – to meet government targets without impacting the local food industry or further contributing to the environmental impact of palm oil production. The team, which received funding from the Newton Fund – a UK government funding scheme set up to promote and establish international collaborations – has been using the facilities and expertise at ISIS Neutron and Muon Source to develop their research into a practical technique.

They aim to see whether bentonite clay, a renewable and abundant resource in Indonesia, could be used as a catalyst in the conversion of palm oil waste into biofuel. Bentonite clay is a volcanic clay with an extraordinarily diverse spread of uses. It can be used as a laxative in humans or as a moisture absorber in cat litter. Other uses include being used as a purifier in wine making or as a lining in landfill sites. In this case, the clay is being used as a catalyst to promote the chemical reactions that convert the heavy palm oil molecules into the lighter hydrocarbon molecules that make up fuels like gasoline and diesel.

The team have been using the advanced neutron techniques available at ISIS to understand the interactions between the chemical compounds in biomass waste and the proposed bentonite catalyst. The aim is to see how well the catalyst does its job of promoting chemical reactions and then use that knowledge to develop and optimise a technique that will work at an industrial scale – reducing Indonesia’s reliance on fossil fuels without negatively impacting Indonesian society or the local environment.

The team also hope that they can export some of the expertise they have gained at ISIS to Indonesia. ‘Both the knowledge we have gained and the networks we have established in neutron science will be brought back to Indonesia, opening up research using techniques that were previously unavailable,’ Dr Adilina explains. ‘Indonesia is now able to use the full potential of instruments at ISIS due to the expertise gained at the facility, working alongside experts with 20 years of experience in the field, providing new insights into materials.’

Last updated: 13 March 2019

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