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A*STAR team combines fungal culture and acid hydrolyses for cost-effective production of fermentable sugars from palm oil waste

Researchers from A*STAR in Singapore have developed a fungal culture for use in a cheap and efficient method to transform waste oil palm material into biofuels and environmentally friendly plastics.

After the harvest of the fruit from oil palm trees, large amounts of leftover biomass known as empty fruit bunch remain. The industry wants to use these leftover fruit bunches to produce bioethanol and biodegradable plastic, but has stumbled in their efforts to convert the leftovers in a cost-efficient way. The new fungal culture could make it possible to produce fermentable sugars from this huge amount of waste in a cost-effective way, thereby increasing its commercial value, said one of the lead researchers, Jin Chuan Wu, from the A*STAR Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences.

The palm oil waste contains cellulose and hemicellulose that can be broken down into sugars for use in fuel and plastic production. While the hemicellulose material is easily dissolved by a process known as dilute acid-catalyzed hydrolysis, the cellulose is tougher and remains solid.

The cellulose can be further treated with a mixture of enzymes, but the commercially available mixtures usually do not contain enough of one enzyme—β-glucosidase—to do the job properly. Higher amounts of β-glucosidase can be added to the commercial preparations, which then ramps up the cost of converting oil palm biomass into biofuel and bioplastic.

Wu and his team used whole fungal cell cultures to catalyze the breakdown of cellulose instead of the commercial enzyme mixture. They employed a strain of Trichoderma reesei, which produces sufficient amounts of the enzymes necessary to dissolve cellulose.

The fungal cell cultures converted the cellulose to glucose and achieved a concentration of 8.5 grams per liter after 120 hours—almost 59% of the total potential glucose available in the plant material. In comparison, the commercial enzyme mixture produced 10% less glucose under the same conditions.

In total, the team were able to convert up to 82 per cent of the original plant carbohydrates into fermentable sugars.

The use of whole fungal cell culture for the hydrolysis of cellulose makes it more commercially attractive as there is no need to add external β-glucosidase or separate the whole fungal cells from the cellulases.

—Jin Chuan Wu


  • Li, Q., Ng, W. T., Puah, S. M., Bhaskar, R. V., Soh, L. S. et al. (2014) “Efficient production of fermentable sugars from oil palm empty fruit bunch by combined use of acid and whole cell culture–catalyzed hydrolyses,” Biotechnology and Applied Biochemistry 61, 426–431 doi: 10.1002/bab.1188



Fungi of course are a way of removing nasty pests from the ecosystem too, like knotweed and gypsy moths. It stands to reason that enzymes in the natural and fast proliferating receptacles called fungi (which are in fact natural symbiotes, like lichens) can do the job better than enymes derived from them)

From the point of view of tropical forests, palm trees and their destructive human plantation owners ARE pests. Another crop fad gone bad.

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