Waving the Palm Branch

The use of palm oil to make biodiesel can dredge up images of barren acreage where lush rainforests once flourished. However, palm oils' use extends far beyond that of the biodiesel industry, causing demand for the product to continue to rise. To combat bad images and to keep up with growing demand, some in the industry have formed an organization charged with developing management practices that conform to a global definition of sustainable palm oil production.
By Holly Jessen | January 24, 2007
Bring up the subject of palm oil as a biodiesel feedstock and it's likely to generate some strong opinions. Whether palm oil is used instead of a feedstock grown in the United States or it leads to concerns about rainforest deforestation, some biodiesel producers are wary of palm oil. To top it off, the fuel's high cloud point and cold filter plugging point (CFPP) can cause problems in colder climates.
Can palm oil overcome the strikes against it? Some companies are confident that they can clean up the image of devastated rainforests and maintain a sustainable, environmentally friendly palm-oil-based biodiesel industry. As for the fuel's performance issues, there are new developments in that arena that show promise, as well.

Instances in which rainforests have been destroyed to develop palm oil plantations have given the feedstock a bad name in some circles, including Greenpeace USA, according to John Coequyt, energy policy specialist with the environmental organization. Greenpeace sees palm oil production as a significant driver of destroying rainforests in Southeast Asia, particularily Indonesia.

Biofuel production should be about relieving the climate change problem, Coequyt says. However, if, in the process of producing biodiesel, valuable rainforests are obliterated, this creates a negative carbon balance rather than a positive one. In fact, the European Union is looking at banning any biofuel that is produced at the cost of deforestation. "It's a significant concern for the environmental community for sure," he says.

It's true that palm oil production methods have been under the microscope for the past several years, according to Petra Meekers, sustainability manager for BioX Group Asia, which works with palm oil and jatropha oil for renewable energy generation. BioX Group Asia is involved in oil trading and also developes and operates biomass-fired power stations in Europe. BioX has serious concerns that the palm oil crop is not grown in a sustainable way. "Palm oil [production] has led to conversion of forests with high conservation value and has threatened the rich biodiversity in these ecosystems," Meekers says.

Loss of rainforest land is not the only concern. Reportedly, burning vegetation to prepare the land for planting has increased the risk of forest fires. Also, expansion of the industry has increased "social conflicts" between plantation owners and the people living nearby, she says.

Based on current trends, demand for palm oil will continue to increase. However, many believe the industry must grow in a sustainable way. "To ensure that this happens, it's necessary to develop a globally acceptable definition of sustainable palm oil production and use-as well as implement-better management practices that comply with this definition," Meekers says.

In April 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed. This global, nonprofit organization has 144 members, including growers, processors, consumer goods companies, retailers and other non-governmental organizations according to T.C. Long, managing director of Vance Bioenergy, which is a member of RSPO.

In November 2005, RSPO adopted a list of eight criteria that must be present for sustainable palm oil production. (see sidebar). "The main objective of RSPO is the production promotion and usage of sustainable palm oil," Meekers says.

BioX Group, a member of RSPO since 2004, is working to develop and support palm oil projects that are sustainable. The company is developing an audit process for the palm plantations from which it receives palm oil. As Biox Group looks at purchasing shares in plantations of its own, sustainability is part of the evaluation process. "Although not part of our primary business activities, these projects form an important element of our corporate social responsibility," Meekers says.

Palm Oil Primer
The tree that produces palm oil grows in a tropical area within 10 degrees latitude north and south of the equator, according to Peter Fässler, lead application manager in the global support group for Switzerland-based Sulzer Chemtech AG. Fässler is the author of "Biodiesel Fuel from Palm Oil: Too Good to Be Used as Fuel?" which was published in the Sulzer Technical Review in the third quarter 2006 issue. Sulzer Chemtech's main activities are in mass transfer components for industrial applications. This includes palm oil strippers and equipment for oleochemical distillation for food and fuel production in the palm oil industry, he tells Biodiesel Magazine.

The palm trees, which grow fruit for 25 years or more, produce large bunches of palm fruit yearly. Crude palm oil is extracted from the fruit and can be used to make biodiesel or food items, such as frying oil, margarine, mayonnaise and more, Fässler says.

Additional products can be made from the remaining palm oil, fiber, sludge and nuts. Some examples are pulp and paper, animal feed, fertilizer, and oleochemicals for cosmetics, soap and biodiesel.

Though market prices for refined, bleached and deodorized palm oil are attractive for biodiesel production, palm oils high pour point is an obvious disadvantage, Fässler says. Biodiesel made from palm oil typically has a pour point of about 12 degrees Celsius (54 degrees Fahrenheit), which can lead to blockage of fuel injection systems.

Methylpalmate is the culprit. It has a melting point of 30 to 33 degrees Celsius (86 to 91 degrees Fahrenheit) and is present in high quantities in palm oil. Further processing through winterization is needed to remove at least a fraction of the methylpalmate from palm oil before it can be used as a biodiesel feedstock, Fässler says.

The extracted methylpalmate can be further processed into higher alcohols, which are marketable as cosmetics, food and other products. The by-products of processing palm oil for uses other than fuel have high values and will add to the profitability of a biodiesel production facility. "This is a huge market," he says.

Fässler concluded in his paper that further processing of palm oil would be advantageous before it is used for biodiesel production. "It's a pity to burn that in the engine when you could have a source of a naturally grown cosmetic product [among other products], which you could use and extract easily," he tells Biodiesel Magazine.

Not everyone agrees with Fässler. Vance Bioenergy, a palm oil-based biodiesel producer in Malaysia, believes that palm oil is a good feedstock for biodiesel, according to Long. The company produces biodiesel at a production facility in Malaysia. The 15 MMgy plant is currently being expanded and production is expected to increase to more than 45 MMgy by the middle of 2007, Long tells Biodiesel Magazine.

He estimates that the CFPP of palm oil biodiesel is between 11 and 15 degrees Celsius (52 and 59 dgrees Fahrenheit). "We have found that this has little impact when used in blends below B20, especially in the case of B5 blends," Long says, adding that while pour point and cold filter plugging point are related, they measure slightly different things. Pour point is the temperature at which fuel will no longer flow freely, or it contains many agglomerated crystals and is gelled, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's "Biodiesel Handling and Use Guidelines," published in September 2006. CFPP is defined as the temperature when enough fuel crystals are present to plug a filter.

In addition, Vance Bioenergy's biodiesel consistently has cetane levels of about 65, Long says. It has oxidation stability that goes above and beyond Europe's EN 14214 specification of more than 20 hours. "This means it burns well, and its stability makes it very suitable for handling, storage and transportation," Long says.

Vance Bioenergy, which has its roots in palm oil production, refining and other related businesses, is also committed to excellence and sustainability, and its feedstock suppliers are members of RSPO. "We believe that palm-based biodiesel has a significant role to play in our increasing global demand for biofuels," Long says. "We believe its status as an environmentally friendly fuel should not start at the point where it's burnt, but from the point it's grown and throughout its journey of conversion into biodiesel."

Company Imports Palm Oil Biodiesel
Biodiesel Energy Systems Inc. (BES), a Tampa, Fla.-based company marketing palm-oil-based biodiesel in the United States, also believes in the feedstock. BES has a contractual relationship with Manta, Ecuador-based La Fabril, which produces biodiesel from palm oil, according to BES president Elio Muller.

Since last October, La Fabril has exported more than 15 million gallons of palm-oil-based biodiesel to the United States, Muller tells Biodiesel Magazine. La Fabril, which has traditionally worked in the cooking oil industry, is in the process of building a refined, bleached and deodorized palm oil production facility with a capacity of 100 MMgy, the largest in the western hemisphere. The company is also in the process of increasing its biodiesel production from 36 MMgy to 50 MMgy and should be finished by the early spring of 2007, Muller says. Once the palm oil production facility is at full capacity, the biodiesel plant will be expanded to 100 MMgy.
BES is in talks with additional companies in an effort to market more palm oil biodiesel domestically, Muller says. The company prefers palm oil because it's easily available and affordable.

On top of that, the oil yield per acre is much greater than soybeans or rapeseed, Muller says. Palm plantations typically produce about 610 gallons per acre of palm oil, compared with 122 gallons per acre for rapeseed and 46 gallons per acre for soybeans.

In response to environmental concerns, Muller points out that only a small fraction of palm oil plantations have caused the deforestation of rainforests. Ecuador hasn't had any original forest growth for centuries, except on steep slopes that aren't ideal for planting. Also, land formerly used as pasture for cattle-not forestland-is being converted to palm plantations, he says.

La Fabril is currently developing two plantations. Each will produce about 80 million gallons of palm oil yearly. To develop these projects, they must be certified by an independent entity as environmentally friendly. "We are environmentally sensitive," Muller says.
La Fabril has also developed a product in response to palm oil biodiesel's high CFPP. At press time, the company was working with BES to import La Fabril's new "Cold Flo Biodiesel" to the United States by Jan. 1.

The CFPP of typical palm oil biodiesel is above 13 degrees Celsius (55 degrees Fahrenheit), Muller says. La Fabril's new product will be sold with a guarantee of 3 degrees Celsius (37 degrees Fahrenheit), or the same CFPP rating as soy-oil-based biodiesel.
Though he declined to say how the new biodiesel product was created, noting that the process was a trade secret developed by La Fabril, Muller did say that it didn't involve an additive. The fuel, which was either under production or near production at press time, meets ASTM standards and Europe's EN 14214.

Holly Jessen is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach her at [email protected] or (701) 746-8385.
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