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Making Palm Oil Sustainable

Chemists seek the solution to a growing environmental problem

by Alex Scott
March 2, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 9

Palm oil fruits.
Credit: Shutterstock
The white heart of the palm kernel is used to make oleochemicals. Oil from the flesh is typically used in foods.

Palm oil is a wonderfully versatile and cheap raw material. On its own or via chemical derivatives, the oil makes its way into many packaged foods and into household products ranging from fine cosmetics to heavy-duty detergents.

Some 63 million metric tons of palm oil is harvested annually from tropical plantations, 87% of it coming from Malaysia and Indonesia. Palm oil is derived from the flesh and kernel of the fruit of oil palms. Demand for the oil is set to exceed 70 million metric tons by the middle of the next decade.

But palm oil’s large-scale use has environmental costs. In Southeast Asia, it is the leading driver of deforestation. Indonesia has the third-largest area of contiguous tropical forest in the world, but according to a 2007 United Nations Environment Programme report, 98% of the country’s natural rain forest will be destroyed by 2022 unless strict conservation measures are implemented.

Chemical companies are part of the problem because they are using ever-larger quantities of palm oil to make the “green” products demanded by consumers. But chemical firms such as Clariant, Croda, and Evonik Industries say they can be part of the solution by putting systems in place to ensure that they don’t source palm oil grown on land that has been recently deforested.

Palm Oil In A Nutshell


◾ Annual production is expected to rise some 15% by 2025 to more than 70 million metric tons.
◾ RSPO members produce 40% of palm oil. They claim half of their production is sustainable.
◾ Palm plantations cover 41 million acres, an area greater than the state of Georgia.
◾ Yield of 2.5 metric tons per acre is twice that of coconut oil and 10 times that of soybean oil.
◾ About one-third of all vegetable oil used worldwide is palm oil.
◾ In 2014, 70% of the 11,700 new cosmetic products contained palm oil.
◾ The cosmetics industry uses 2% of the world’s palm oil.
◾ The food industry uses 80% of the world’s palm oil.
◾ The typical palm oil price is $650–$800 per metric ton.

SOURCES: Food & Agriculture Organization, Mintel, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)

Critics argue that even more stringent measures are needed if rain forests are to survive. Meanwhile, other chemical and biotech firms are taking a completely different approach by looking to develop industrial biotechnology processes for next-generation oils that might someday replace palm.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO, was set up 11 years ago by palm oil producers and users to address the sector’s environmental impact. RSPO, which has 855 members, has devised two certification systems for ensuring that its members can source palm oil sustainably. Both approaches classify sustainable plantations as those not grown on land cleared of tropical rain forest after November 2005.

The first approach, dubbed mass balance, monitors the volume of sustainable palm oil entering the supply chain to make sure it doesn’t exceed the amount of product that is grown on sustainable plantations. In mass balance, unsustainable and sustainable oil may be mixed as they travel along the supply chain.

The second approach, segregation, is more rigorous and harder to implement than mass balance. Oil certified as sustainable is segregated from conventional oil at every stage of the supply chain from the plantation through to a food or chemical company’s gates.

RSPO members are now starting to deploy these supply-chain certification systems. Croda, one of the world’s largest consumers of fatty acids, methyl esters, fatty amines, and fatty alcohols derived from palm oil, is buying mass balance oil. “We are pulling certified oil into our supply chain,” says Chris Sayner, vice president of global accounts for Croda. “To gain a certificate, you have to demonstrate that you can manage traceability.”

Segregation is the next logical step, Sayner says. Croda aims to certify all 15 of its plants that handle palm-oil-derived materials by the end of this year and to be consuming only segregated oil by the end of 2017. This would make it one of the earliest adopters of the segregation approach.

To continue as RSPO members, companies must demonstrate they are making continual progress when it comes to environmental performance. Palm-oil-producing members, such as the Indonesian firm PT BW Plantation, say they are committed to providing sustainably sourced oil. “If we cleared virgin forest, we would be in jail,” Sebastian Sharp, head of investor relations for PT BW Plantation, tells C&EN.

The Swiss firm Clariant, which uses 54,000 metric tons of palm oil annually in specialty chemical production, aims to source mass-balance-certified palm oil by 2016 and segregated oil by 2020.

“The RSPO mass balance certification is a necessary intermediate step for us to achieve this goal and to build up our internal expertise accordingly,” Clariant says. “We started to work on traceability. Sustainable sourcing starts with transparency across the supply chain, which is extremely complex.”

The German specialty chemical firm Evonik uses palm oil to manufacture more than 180 of its cosmetic ingredients, such as emulsifiers and consistency enhancers. Substituting other crops for palm oil is not an option for Evonik as it “would require additional purification steps or additives,” says Peter Becker, key account manager for Evonik’s personal care business.

In fact, the firm aims to develop new applications for palm oil. As an example, it is piloting a palm-based process for making ω-amino lauric acid, a nylon 12 intermediate.

Evonik is targeting 2023 as the year when it will handle and supply only RSPO-certified palm oil product. Such far off targets could be problematic, though, if the UN’s prediction about Indonesia’s virgin tropical rain forest proves accurate.

Conservationists want RSPO members to do more, and do it more quickly. In 2013, more than 200 scientists from around the world called on RPSO to ban future palm plantations on peat soils or in place of old-growth forests.

“It is vital that the RSPO add these requirements to the principles and criteria immediately to ensure that all palm oil being sold with the label ‘sustainable’ is not driving climate change and forest destruction,” the scientists wrote. Neither measure has yet been adopted by RSPO.

If tropical rain forest is to be protected from the expanding palm oil industry, additional approaches will likely be required. Replacing palm oil with other crops isn’t an option, however, Sayner argues. “We couldn’t feed ourselves without palm. We couldn’t live without palm,” he says. “It’s like asking what you could use in the chemical industry to replace ethylene oxide: nothing.”

The reality is that, per acre, palm has a yield double that of coconut, the next best oil crop, according to Sayner. Replacing palm would simply require more land to grow the same amount of a different oil. “It’s just moving the problem somewhere else,” he says.

On the other hand, increasing the yield of palm could reduce forest clearance. The best-run plantations yield about 2.5 metric tons of palm oil per acre, but many have lower yields. Cultivating “super palm” varieties could yield up to 4 metric tons per acre, said L. Roman Carrasco, assistant professor at the National University of Singapore, and colleagues in a paper published in Science last fall (2014, DOI: 10.1126/science.1256685).

In a simulation model, Carrasco identified that a 56% increase in palm oil yield per tree would save about 740,000 acres of forest and take almost 1 million acres of agricultural land out of production, equivalent to about 6% of Indonesia’s palm-growing area.

Orangutan rainforest habitat cleared in Indonesia to make way for palm oil plantation.
Credit: Ulet Ifansasti/Greenpeace
An orangutan habitat cleared recently by a palm oil producer in Indonesia.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Bath, in England, recently completed a three-year project to make palm-oil-like material using Metschnikowia pulcherrima, a strain of yeast. M. pulcherrima can be fed with “nearly any organic feedstock” from sugars to cellulosic material, says Christopher J. Chuck, project colead and research fellow for the university’s Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies. He estimates that the land required to produce oil from M. pulcherrima may be as much as 100 times less than is needed for producing palm oil.

Chuck and his colleagues are optimistic that yeast can generate the kinds of oils that industry wants. “Early laboratory tests suggest that by tweaking the growth conditions of the yeast, M. pulcherrima, we can produce an oil that is thicker than palm oil and that may even result in better quality products,” the university says.

M. pulcherrima also can grow in temperate climates. Although it is early days for the approach, Chuck and his colleagues have selected a commercial partner, which has asked not to be named publicly, to scale up the process.

The Dutch chemical maker DSM is already using fermentation to produce polyunsaturated fatty acids that otherwise might be sourced from palm oil. So far, the company is pursuing specialty applications. “Food oils are very low cost, and replacement of palm oil by fermentation is not yet feasible,” says Marcel Wubbolts, DSM’s chief technology officer.

But in the longer term, fermentation processes that could replace palm oil may not be restricted to higher value chemicals, Wubbolts says. It is “not necessarily niche only,” he says. “If you take into account the value of coproducts—for example, active ingredients and proteins from algae—the economic feasibility of the oils produced is better.”

Solazyme, a California-based biotech company, is already producing commercial quantities of algal oils that are engineered to be chemically similar to palm products, such as the C10 and C12 fatty acids found in palm kernel oil. The start-up is supplying a replacement for palm oil derivatives in products such as a laundry detergent from the Belgian firm Ecover. The algae are grown in fermentation tanks, where they are fed sugars, and are harvested within 72 hours.

Unlike palm oil, algae can be produced in temperate climes close to the region where it is consumed, says Scott Franklin, Solazyme’s vice president of molecular biology. Another potential benefit of algae is that its yield per acre is multiples greater than palm oil’s. Solazyme says it can increase its production rapidly to large scale.

To date, algal oils are slightly more expensive than palm oil, Franklin acknowledges, but because fatty acid profiles can be tailored to a chemical firm’s requirements, customers’ processing costs may be lower.

“We are bringing something extra,” Franklin says. He cites an extensive partnership with Unilever, where Solazyme has engineered a line of algae to generate fatty acids that are suited to making a certain type of personal care product. “Unilever is very, very price sensitive. So they make sure it is worthwhile,” Franklin says.

Solazyme and DSM aren’t the first companies to try to use biotechnology to replace palm oil. In 2011, for example, the industrial biotech firm Codexis launched a project to make detergent-grade fatty alcohols from fermentation rather than tropical oils. Two years later, it shut down the program as part of a general retrenchment from industrial products.

Solazyme is undeterred, in part because it considers its palm replacements to have a particularly high environmental benefit. “It relieves the pressure on the tropical rain-forest belt,” says Jill Kauffman Johnson, director of sustainability at Solazyme. “It’s an alternative. On a planet where the population is predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050, we actually need every possible sustainable source of this material there is.”


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