DIRECT involvement of stakeholders will ensure that research programmes by higher-learning institutions are relevant and can address the needs of the industry.
One shining example of a strategic and fruitful collaboration is a demonstration plant that integrates a zero-waste management system in palm oil processing.
The Sime Darby Palm Oil Tennamaram mill in Bestari Jaya, Selangor, is a pilot plant that features various technologies to transform a regular mill into a green technology factory.
It was developed by a team of researchers under the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia-Yayasan Sime Darby (UKM-YSD) Chair for Sustainable Development of Zero-Waste Technology. The construction of the plant had been completed and trial runs were underway.
It all began in January 2010, when Sime Darby Foundation partnered with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia to establish the UKM-YSD chair. The collaboration was launched in September 2011 by the then deputy prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.
The initial work included planning and securing funds and establishing technology through research and development. Now entering its final phase, the technology is being adapted for palm oil production in the economic scale.
According to UKM-YSD chair co-holder Professor Dr Mohd Sobri Takriff, who is also the head of research, the mission was to turn palm oil mills into green, carbon-neutral factories, with zero emission and discharge, thus ensuring the productivity and sustainability of the industry and increasing its client base.
“In layman’s terms, zero waste means no release of effluents into the air, ground and water. Simultaneously, this innovation can increase the country’s palm oil revenue, and ensure long term productivity and sustainability of the industry,” he said while hosting the media on a visit to the Tennamaram mill.
The research programme adopted various strategies to eliminate pollution caused by palm oil mills, such as green technology, waste to wealth, and reusing and recycling of solid and liquid by-products.
Seven strategic thrusts to resolve the pollution problem were identified.
They include biohydrogen and biogas production, biomass conversion, reforming biomethane to hydrogen, biohydrogen purification, storage and power generation, turning palm biomass to organic fertiliser, carbon capture and recycling water.
UKM deputy vice-chancellor (research & innovation) Professor Datuk Dr Abdul Wahab Mohammad said the technology would change the way the industry handled palm oil mill effluents (POME) to become efficient and sustainable.
The effluents included oil palm kernel and mesocarp fibre from the fruits, empty branches, carbon and hydrogen gases, and waste water.
POME were often discarded in disposal ponds, resulting in the leaching of contaminants into groundwater and soil. The decomposition process also releases methane, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.
“With this zero-waste technology, waste such as palm biomass are processed into organic fertiliser, animal feed and many other things. Hydrogen is collected and channelled to an energy plant, while carbon dioxide is no longer released into the air. Instead, it is captured and absorbed by an algae filter. The sewage produced by the palm oil mill will be processed into clean water to be reused by the plant itself, “ he said.
Sobri said the manpower for the research programme comprised UKM researchers, postgraduate students and Sime Darby engineers.
“We are combining the capacity of homegrown researchers and scientists from both UKM and Sime Darby Research, who have expertise and specialised skills in zero-waste technology in the palm oil industry.
“The collaborative effort also allows the transfer of knowledge and technology between Sime Darby and UKM.
“In making it valuable and relevant, last year, 14 ‘Sustainable Development’ scholarships have been allocated for Sime Darby employees and UKM research assistants to pursue a Master’s or PhD for four years,” he said, adding that it was an ideal model of a successful university-industry partnership.
Sobri said the UKM-YSD chair had received more than RM21 million from Sime Darby in the form of endowments, research grants and scholarships. The pilot project also received funding from the Education Ministry, UKM and other sources.
Other researchers were Professor Dr Jamaliah Md Jahim, Associate Professor Dr Mohd Shahbudin Mastar, Associate Professor Dr Sahilah Abdul Mutalib and Dr Shuhaida Harun.
Sobri said the research and development work was conducted collaboratively not only between UKM and Sime Darby researchers, but also with other universities, such as Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), University of Nottingham Malaysia and Universiti Malaysia Pahang (UMP) .
This collaboration would continue to expand with a global outlook. The chair had also established international ties with Wageningen University in the Netherlands, Feng Chia University in Taiwan and Thailand Institute of Scientific and Technology Research.
Sobri said although the research was focused on POME, the research conducted by small- and medium-scale enterprises were more thorough and varied.
“We hope this zero-waste technology will change the perception, especially among buyers abroad, that palm oil production is not environmentally friendly.”
He hoped that the Education Ministry would allocate more funds to explore zero-waste technology.
“This is a pioneering technology. So, it is not built to process POME in large capacities. Currently, the plant in Bestari Jaya can handle 300 litres of sewage only a day. The technology is there, we just hope that we have the funds to expand it,” he said.