Standards for Oil Palm Fibre
The oil palm industry in Malaysia started 80 years ago in a modest way. Today it is the largest in agricultural plantation sector, exceeding rubber plantation by more than double in area planted.
In terms of hectare, the total area under oil palm cultivation is over 2.65 million hectares, producing over 8 million tonnes of oil annually. The oil consists of only 10% of the total biomes produced in the plantation. The remainder consists of huge amount of lignocellulosic materials such as oil palm fronds, trunks and empty fruit bunches. The projection figures of these residues are as follows:
* These figures depend on the life span of oil palm tree that is due for replanting after about 20-25 years old. Extracted from the paper entitled Fibre processing technology fractionation promss to produce fibrous strands from oil palm residues, by Mahmudin
Saleh and Puad Elham
Based on the above figures, Malaysia therefore has a great potential in turning its abundant supply of oil palm industry by-products into value-added products.
Under the present scenario, Malaysia can no longer remain idle and complacent in its position as the top grower and supplier of palm oil. In view of the escalating challenge posed by the other oil producing countries, Malaysia has to change its objective of being a world producer of palm oil to amongst others a leader in converting biomass waste into value-added products. Malaysia has therefore to seriously resort in aggressive R&D to support its ambition.
Before we embarked into identifying the parameters effecting the overall quality of the fibre, let us turn to look into the current utilisation of these fibres. Recent report shows that the mesocarp fibre and shell are used as boiler to produce steam and to generate power. Whereas, empty fruit bunches are mainly incinerated to produce bunch ash to be distributed back to the field as fertiliser.
The conventional method of burning these residues often create environmental problems in that it generates severe air pollution and is prohibited by the Environment Protection Act. In abiding by the regulations, these residues are becoming expensive to dispose. Nevertheless, looking on the brighter side of things, extensive research has provided us with an alternative way of optimising the usage of oil palm residues fibrebased into value-added product.
SIRIM Berhad in its effort to provide technical support through its standardisation activities has established a working group and put to task the preparation of a Malaysian Standard on the oil palm fibre. Through the concerted effort of the working group members comprising academicians, research institutions, manufacturers and related associations, the development of a Malaysian Standard was carried out. References were made against existing production technologies in Oil Palm Fibre the oil palm industry, research papers and literatures related to the subject matter and the following foreign references:
The empty fruit bunch fibre (EFB) was identified as the first of the series of standards on oil palm fibres because of logistic reasons. The EFB has the highest fibre yield and is the only material commercially utilised for fibre extraction but there are good potentials for the exploitation of the other two materials (oil palm fronds and trunks).
The standard is unique in that it is an indigenous standard and is the first in the world that directly relates to the oil palm residues. Extensive study and research had been conducted both by FRIM and PORIM in collaboration with the manufacturers. After several meetings and discussions, the committee had identified critical parameters affecting the quality of the end product. The critical characteristics of oil palm fibre include the fibre length, moisture content, oil content and impurities. Details on the acceptable limits and methods of determination are given in the standard, MS 1408 :1997 (P) - Specification for oil palm empty fruit bunch fibre.
For the purpose of commercialisation, the standard recommends ONE grade of empty fruit bunch fibre (EFB). In quantifying the percentage proportion of fibre length, the standard has established the following numerical values:
The method of determining the proportion by mass of the different EFB fibre length is described in Appendix B of the standard. The right mixture of fibre length is important for the aesthetic finished. Apart from dimensions of fibre length, the standard also defines specific terminology frequently encountered in the standard.
In order to ascertain that samples are representative of the lot and that bales are randomly selected, the provision of a sampling procedure is being prescribed in the standard.
Inherent characteristics such as high moisture content will have a detrimental effect on the oil palm residues. Degradation and infection will easily take place thus leading to deterioration in the properties of the fibres. To prevent this from happening, a maximum moisture content of 15% (on wet basis) was set. This value is comparable to the moisture content for all wood-based fibres.
In addition, the standard has also identified impurities as a critical element in producing high quality fibres. Impurities by definition means the calyxes, spikes, aggregates or fibre strands, any dust or fine particles and parenchyma of EFB. Since it is practically impossible to have fibre free impurities, the maximum level of impurities allowed for in the standard is at 15% . Nevertheless with future improvement in the process technologies, this limit could be further reduced.
The final EFB fibre characteristics that merits attention is the oil content of the fibre. The presence of a significant percentage of residual oil possess a major problem in that it will react with the moisture content hence giving rise to rancidity and ultimately fungal growth. The control limit for oil content shall not exceed 3%.
Other inherent characteristics such as the salt content, odour, mass, etc. were taken into consideration during the process of formulating the standard. Since these parameters do not affect the overall quality of the EFB fibre significantly, it was therefore excluded from the general requirements of the standard.
Standardisation only provides one of the means necessary to assist manufacturers in producing quality fibre for downstream uses. Manufacturers and the like should further spear-head investigations in improving existing technologies through aggressive R&D. Considering the abundance of residual fibres available for commercial exploitation, its market potential and business opportunities, and not withstanding the slow depletion of rubber-wood, is a challenge worth considering.