Dead Palms to Green Fuel: Asia Turns Felled Trees into Biomass

Japanese and Malaysian scientists headline massive biomass venture.

Thu 02 May 24


Japanese and Malaysian researchers are testing a process for turning felled palm trees into biomass, a renewable source of energy. The trunks, fed into a machine, are reduced to heaps of moist, amber fibre within seconds.

Dr Akihiko Kosugi leads the project from the Japan International Research Centre for Agricultural Sciences. It comes as Japanese universities and businesses participate with the Malaysian government and the University Sains Malaysia, a major research institute.

Mr Kosugi says the palm trees are easy to mulch; their elevated water content softens the wood. The fibres are later washed, dried and converted into small, cylindrical fuel pellets.

The research plant at Kluang, a town in southern Malaysia, also uses the liquid wrung out of fibres after they are washed with the sap recycled into pellets.

Palm trees are 70% to 80% water, yielding large quantities of sap. Because palm sap has a sugar content, it can be recycled into fertiliser or sustainable aviation fuel.

Palm waste can also be recycled into material for making furniture, and a Malaysian manufacturer has developed a production process for making wooden boards out of dead palm trunks.

The palm tree biomass project was selected in 2018 for a sustainable development research program backed by the Japan Science and Technology Agency and the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

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Turning felled palm trees into biomass… Dr Akihiko Kosugi, Japan International Research Centre for Agricultural Sciences (left) and Masaharu Yamashita. chief examiner, Carbon Solutions SBU Technology Centre. (Photo Credit: Fumika Sato)

Palm oil, used in various food products and daily necessities, is the world’s most heavily consumed vegetable-derived oil. Indonesia and Malaysia produce about 80% of the global volume.

But the expansion of palm groves has been blamed for destroying forests. Turning palm oil production into an environmentally sustainable industry has become a pressing issue.

A palm tree decreases its yield after 25 years, necessitating replanting. When old palm trees are felled, they are usually left to decompose in the belief they would fertilise the soil.

However, according to Akihiko Kosugi, research shows that felled palm trees become breeding grounds for termites, as well as other insects and fungi.

“We now know they produce methane and other greenhouse gases,” the researcher said.

Tens of millions of palm trees are felled and abandoned each year in Malaysia, reports Japan-based Nikkei Asia. Each tonne of palm tree trunk cut down produces 1.3 tonnes of greenhouse gases.

Dr Kosugi said recycling old palm trees would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Palm waste was considered a source of biomass for producing energy, but impurities in palm waste could damage boilers or cause fires.

“It’s critical to remove impurities,” says Sudesh Kumar, biotechnology professor at the University Sains Malaysia.

The Kluang plant removes the impurities, pulverises long fibres into powder and compresses the dust into homogenous pellets.

For the Kluang plant project, whether recycling old palm trees into fuel will be profitable.

To reduce the expense of delivering palm trunks to recycling plants, one idea has been to approach businesses that run both palm groves and oil extraction facilities with a deal to dispose of waste in exchange for no-cost supplies of felled palm trees.

This arrangement might work in Sarawak, a Malaysian state that has many integrated palm groves and processing plants.


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