Climate profit when also palm oil residue PFAD is used as biofuel

Fatty acid residues from the palm oil refining process finds a market.

The palm oil tree is the world most efficient oil producing crop. Its main products are used for food, feed, chemistry and energy. India, China and Europe are the main importers.  The total production of palm oil and palm kernel oil in 2015 totalled around 65 million tonnes. 85 percent was produced in Indonesia and Malaysia. Residues and bi-products has now also found a market as biofuel and feedstock.  But the debate regarding palmoil benefits or disadvantages is often based on alternative rather than solid facts. The issue is political very hot,  recently the Environmental committee (ENVI) of the European Parliament voted negatively for PFAD as a residue feedstock for biofuels.
The main products are CPO, Crude palm Oil and PKO, Palm Kernel Oil.  Byproducts are used for animal feed (from the remaining press cake) and different solids used as fuel for power.  The CPO is transported to a distillery and further processed, mostly to EPO Edible Palm Oil for the food industry. One major residue stream in the destillation process is the fatty acid distillate  (PFAD) that has been separated in the process and not possible to use as food. This stream, 2 – 4 percent of the EPO, has found a new market as a feedstock for the production of biodiesel (HVO).

The oil palm originates from West Africa

The oil palm tree originates from West Africa where it grows in the wild and later was developed into an agricultural crop. It was introduced to Malaya in early 1870’s by the British. The first commercial planting in the region took place in 1917. In the 1960s the Malaysian government introduced land settlements schemes for planting oil palm as means to eradicate poverty for landless farmers and smallholders. Today the plantations are either under an estate management system or a smallholder scheme. In Malaysia more than half a miljon people are employed by the industry.

Palmoil trees in a plantation

The oil palm is the best bio-oil producing plant existing in the world.  It is widely cultivated in south east Asia, especially in Malaysia and Indonesia. The oil tree start producing fruits Fresh Fruit Bunches (FFB) already 30 months after plantation and reaches its peak production after 18 years. After 25-30 years it is time to replant. Then the cut tree can be recirculated as fertiliser or used as  wood-fuel for bio-power.

The oil palm is very efficient and land saving, requiring only 0.26 hectares of land to produce one tonne of oil, while soybean, sunflower and rapeseed require approx. 2.22, 2 and 1.52 hectares, respectively, to produce the same. One fresh fruit bunch (FFB) can weight up to 25 kg and 25 – 30 percent of it is oil. From the FFB you also get 1 tonne of palm kernels per hectare and a lot of Empty Fruit Bunches (EFB) which are used as solid fuel mainly for power generation. Also the shells from the nuts called PKS are used as solid fuel.  A healthy tree can produce 12 – 14 of these FFB each year. Once ripe the fruit will turn bright red orange, indicating that it is ready to be harvested. The orange colour comes from a high concentration of beta-carotene, the organic pigment that also gives carrots, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins their colour.

Palm oil worker harvesting

Palm oil worker with a harvested FFB Fresh Fruit Bunch. The orange/red colour indicate that the fruit is ripe.

The palm oil process in steps

First are the fruits harvested. This is done by manual labour in small private owned plantations as well by private or state owned corporations. The productions is labour intensive and approximately 3.5 million people in Malaysia and Indonesia get their main income from palm tree planting, cultivation and harvesting.

The fruits are transported to the first processing step where the CPO the Crude Palm Oil is produced together with a number of residues.  The processing plants has a water treatment unit and often also a power plant. Some do also crush and sell EFB directly as fuels or processed to pellets or briquets.

A palm oil mill in Malaysia

Palm Oil Mill Process Diagram

First process step in the palm oil industry, the production of CPO Crude Palm Oil, solid fuel and feed for animals.

After crushing the solid material (EFB) separated and nowadays often used as a solid biofuel . The liquid,  the crude oil is transported and processed in a distillery tor reach the main final product edible oil, Several residue streams  comes out of this process the main is PFAD, Palm Fatty Acid Distillate.

It is important to differentiate between crude palm oil (CPO and the main product palm oil and process residues like PFAD. PFAD consists of degraded fats that are undesired for food production and need to be removed. The need for fossil replacement in the transport sector has opened up for a use of these residues. Companies like Finnish Neste with three big refineries produce high quality biodiesel with the help of this and other mainlyy residue oils. This biofuel can be use as it is as 100 percent biodiesel or be blended into fossil based diesel to improve the environmental benefit.

When oil palm fruit are handled, normal bruising occurs causing the fat in the fruit to start degrading. The longer it takes for the fruit to be transported, processed, and refined into palm oil, the larger part of the fats degrade. When palm oil is being refined into food grade oil, these degraded fats, free fatty acids, are removed by distilling to improve taste, odor, and color of the oil, as well as increase its shelf life.

The youtube video below explains in pedagogic way how crude palm oil is processed.

PFAD consists of these degraded fats that are undesired for food production and need to be removed during the palm oil refining process before the oil meets the food industry’s quality standards.

The annual production of PFAD totals around 2.5 Mt as refining of palm oil generally yields approx. 4–5 percent of PFAD as a processing residue.

In addition to biofuels, PFAD also is used to produce candles, soaps, other oleochemical products and animal feed.

Does a biofuel market for PFAD increase oil palm cultivation?

Palm oil producers can get a higher price from crude palm oil than from selling PFAD. PFAD is, however, generated despite producers’ continuous efforts to improve their processes. Because PFAD is a non-desired output of the palm oil refining process, its use does not drive palm oil production or expansion of its cultivation, nor does it accelerate deforestation  according to Informa Economics, 2016 as quoted by Neste the world largest biodiesel producer..

Norwegian environmental organizations Zero and Rainforest Foundation Norway pointed out in February 2016 that “it is not likely that producers make new investments as a result of price increases of a waste product accounting for about 4% of the value of the main product. It is not likely that an increase in the price of PFAD in itself leads to an increased production of palm oil.”

Neste refinery in Rotterdam

Neste refinery in Rotterdam where different bio-oils are processed to biofuels with a diesel quality

In a circular economy most residues will have a value

Some argue that PFAD should not be considered a residue because it has market value and many uses. In circular economy, however, all residues and wastes should have an avenue to be utilized, and thus have value. The European Union and many of its members states have categorized PFAD as a processing residue, i.e. “a substance that is not the end product(s) that a production process directly seeks to produce. It is not a primary aim of the production process and the process has not been deliberately modified to produce it”.

PFAD for fuels reduce green house gas emissions

Using PFAD to produce renewable fuels is good for the climate and an efficient way to utilize natural resources. Neste’s renewable diesel based on PFAD and other waste and residues helps replace crude oil based diesel in transportation, and enables all diesel-powered vehicles to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approx. 80–90 compared to conventional diesel.

PFAD provides the biofuel industry with an alternative to those raw materials that can also be used in the food industry. In turn, the biofuels industry offers vegetable oil refiners a sustainable avenue for their residue streams such as PFAD.

When taking into account emissions throughout the fuel life-cycle, vehicles that use renewable diesel actually cause less emissions than electric vehicles according to Neste. When the renewable fuel is manufactured from waste and residues, its greenhouse gas emissions decrease by up to 90% in comparison to fossil diesel.

Certification as a guarantee for sustainability

Neste buys PFAD only from those suppliers that are committed to sustainable working practices and meeting strict sustainability criteria embedded in the regulation on biofuels. These criteria include proactive approach to preventing deforestation and mitigating its risk. Neste has full traceability of the PFAD it uses to its place of origin, as the law requires.

Neste is the world’s largest producer of renewable diesel from waste and residues which currently account for nearly 80% of Neste’s usage of renewable raw materials. Besides using various vegetable oil processing wastes and residues such as PFAD, and animal fat from food industry waste, Neste currently explores the potential of other vegetable oil or animal fat processing waste and residues to be used as raw material, the use of which is challenging for other industries.

Malaysia has introduced a national palm oil certification program  (MSPO) that tackle key issues including deforestation and workers right. The MSPO standards prohibit deforestation. Indonesia has since 2009 its ISPO Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil standard.  In Germany a buyers forum has been established “FONAP Forum Nachhaltiges Palmöl” with 46 members.  The main certification for sustainable palmoil is RSPO, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil  and ISCC with is based on the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED) and German sustainability ordinances (BioNachV). An interesting site with the ambition of increasing transparency is SPOTT, Sustainability Policy Transparency Toolkit run by the Zoological Society of London.

@This article is published by 2017-10-25 and is written by Lennart Ljungblom. BcB is since 2014 a leading news site for bioenergy related business. It is part of a family of web sites please also visit and