Researchers in Singapore have produced lactic and acrylic acids from palm oil waste, mitigating the negative impacts of oil palm plantations on the environment.

Oil palm plantations have a controversial history in South-East Asia, not least because of their environmental impact on the landscape. Plantations yield a great deal of waste. Many researchers believe this waste could be harnessed for industrial processes, reducing some of the environmental impact of the palm oil trade.

Researchers at A*STAR’s (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences recently published a method for converting one palm oil by-product, empty fruit bunches, into lactic acid. This could have uses across many industries: from food and drink to textiles.

The team, led by Wu Jinchuan, obtained soil samples from their local environment. They cultivated bacteria from these samples with two types of sugar present in industrial processes involved in palm oil manufacture: xylose and glucose. The most effective strain in producing L-lactic acid was identified as Bacillus coagulans JI12. The team now hopes to genetically engineer this strain to allow the fermentation process that produces lactic acid to take place at a lower pH with minimised yeast extract requirement. This will further increase efficiency and reduce costs. This work was published in Bioresource Technology.

The lactic acid can be further converted to acrylic acid after a simple separation and purification process. Acrylic acid has broad applications in making paint additives, adhesives, textiles and super-absorbent materials and is currently produced from fossil fuels. The production of acrylic acid from lactic acid derived from lignocellulose — plant dry matter — would provide a sustainable way for producing this important platform chemical for industries.

Dr Wang Chuan is leading the research for chemically converting lactic acid to acrylic acid. A powerful catalyst has been developed, which gave an acrylic acid yield of more than 80% with good operational stability. Improvement in the catalyst efficiency is still on-going to further reduce the production cost of acrylic acid. This work has been submitted for patent filing.
For further information contact:

Wu Jinchuan
Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences
Agency for Science, Technology and Research, Singapore
Email: wu_jinchuan@ices.a-star.edu.sg