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April 23, 2012

Embrapa Researching Novel Uses of Palm Oil Hulls

Researchers from Embrapa feel that palm oil production in Brazil has a bright future as a source of raw material especially for biodiesel production. Currently, 80% of the vegetable oil utilized in biodiesel production in Brazil is soybean oil, but palm oil is starting to make some small inroads. It's easy to see why palm oil would look so attractive for biodiesel production.

Palm oil plantations can produce 6 tons of oil per hectare, whereas soybeans can produce only 500 to 600 kilograms per hectare. Brazil has the tropical climate necessary for palm oil production and ample land area for expansion of palm oil production. In fact, Embrapa has been promoting the planting of palm oil trees as a way to recuperate degraded areas of what used to be rain forest.

After the oil is extracted from soybeans the high quality protein meal is a valuable component in animal rations. Unfortunately, when the oil is extracted from palm nuts, the remaining hulls have very little value as animal rations or even green fertilizers and for every ton of oil extracted, there are approximately 1.1 tons of discarded hulls.

That is why researchers from Embrapa's nanotechnology division are looking at novel ways of utilizing this discarded material. One of the things they are looking at is incorporating the cellulose nano-fibers from the hulls into making natural rubber tires. They have already incorporated cotton nano-fibers into tire production with promising results.

If successful, this new technology could reduce the environment impact of not just palm oil production, but also part of the problem associated with the disposal of used tires. These nano-fibers are biodegradable and if they could substitute for some of the natural rubber in tires, there would be lessor amounts of tires to dispose of either in landfills or by other means.

This research is scheduled to last two years and it is a joint effort between Embrapa Agroenergy, Embrapa Cerrados, Embrapa Instrumentation, and Embrapa Genetics and Biotechnology