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Cellulosic ethanol from oil palm empty fruit bunch

Researchers from Malaysia and Japan report on an efficient method of producing the cellulosic ethanol from oil palm waste in the Pertanika Journal of Tropical Agricultural Science. Researchers first separated glucose from cellulose in the plant matter, and then used it as a substrate for ethanol production.

Oil palm empty fruit bunch is an abundant biomass waste, with 15 million tonnes generated annually by palm oil mills in Malaysia alone. Usually it is burnt in incinerators to obtain bunch ash or dumped for mulching in oil palm plantations.

In this research, the team set out to see if it was possible to use glucose recovered during a phase separation process of acid-hydrolyzed oil palm empty fruit for ethanol production. In this process, cellulose is completely hydrolyzed to oligosaccharides and remains in the acid phase. A maximum glucose yield of 53.8% was obtained by hydrolysis, with 4% acid after autoclaving at 121 °C for 5 minutes.

This work focused on the separation of monosaccharide (glucose) from the cellulose fraction. For this purpose, different types of nitrogen sources were evaluated, with yeast extract as the best nitrogen source (93% of theoretical yield) as compared to palm oil mill effluent (POME) and sludge powder for the growth of acid tolerant Saccharomyces cerevisiae ATCC 26602.

Batch and repeated batch fermentation of S. cerevisiae ATCC 26602 using OPEFB hydrolysate gave 0.46 g glucose g ethanol-1, representing 87% of theoretical yield with a productivity of about 0.82 g-1 l-1 h-1 and 0.48 g glucose g ethanol-1, representing 89% of theoretical yield with productivity of about 2.79 g-1 l-1 h-1, respectively.

—Zainudin et al.

The work presents a new approach to producing high yield ethanol using an abundant source of biomass.




The 2012 world production of palm oil is estimated at 48M tonnes/year. Most of it is produced in Indonesia (56%) and in Malaysia (40%). Palm oil is exported to 185 countries and used to produce/prepare edible food and soap.

If 100% of the world production was used as fuel, it would be enough for 1.6 days per year but many million people would miss an important/essential eating ingredient and would have to do without affordable soap.

Using 100% of the non-edible empty fruit bunch (37M tonnes/year) we could produce enough bio-fuel for about 1.0 day per year. However, the energy required to produce this bio-fuel may be equivalent to 60+% of the energy produced. The NET total gain may be closer to the fuel required for 0.4 day per year. Important but not a gate crashing solution.

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