Second-generation process to make palm oil polyols uses diversified feedstock
Report by Liz White, editor
Malaysian researchers are busy developing new routes to making polyols from palm oil, and have just come up with a viable second-generation process using a mix of palm and other vegetable oils.
And, "We don't stop at the development of raw materials, we also look at applications," explained Dr Hazimah Abu Hassan, director, Advanced Oleochemical Technological Division (AOTD) of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB).
They do this, "Because the industry does not know the chemistry of our materials. We know the chemistry, we can make the appropriate polyols for rigid, semi-rigid, flexible foams, coatings and adhesives," Hazimah added.
Commercialisation is a major part of the remit of the group Hazimah heads, whose aim is to research non-food applications and add value to basic palm-oil oleochemicals - and also to ensure its discoveries find their way into industrial use.
AOTD's improved production process for moulding palm oil polyols (POPs) gives materials with better "consistency and better viscosity. One change is of formulation has made is to "diversify development, said the feedstock," using Hazimah blends of different natural/vegetable oils, said Hazimah, in a 12 Oct interview at the Center for the Polyurethanes Industry/UTECH North America 2010, event in Houston, Texas.
The group is currently using its improved process to make 500 - 800-kg batches of different types of polyol, Hazimah said.
Technology transfer is the aim
AOTD's aim is to develop viable technologies to transfer to the market via licensing, or consultancy fees, or through royalties on product sold, said Hazimah.
Such commercialisation is now under way, at two companies who will use its latest process 'to make the polyols.
AOTD is collaborating with local sealant and adhesives maker Rovski, whose plant is being readied for commercial production.
Another company, automotive parts supplier Rokisar, is also adopting the polyol making technology it heard about at MPOB's yearly transfer-of-technology seminar, and has a pre-commercial plant under construction.
Rokisar also aims to use the polyols in its urethane part production, and MPOB is currently carrying out trials to achieve the right formula and viscosity, Hazimah said.
MPOB's website says AOTD, "is aggressively involved in R&D on palm-based polyol and polyurethane," as well as on cosmetics and personal care products, among other outlets.
Understanding the process
MPOB has been developing palm oil polyols since the late 1990s, first making trial polyols in its laboratory, and using them to make various foam parts.
Then AOTD was funded to set up a 1-tonne pilot plant and MPOB worked with local company lntermed to commercialise production of POPs. This also involved making insulation and foams, Hazimah said.
From this work, MPOB has been able to develop "a comprehensive understanding of the chemistry and properties of palm-oil polyols," and uses this knowledge to improve the chemistry for higher quality industrial products.
It is keen to get involved in international networking and now has foam group Tripolymer Inc. sitting on its advisory body, Hazimah said.
Most of Malaysia's palm oil is still used for food products, Hazimah said, but the country sees the other products as adding value to the supply chain. Malaysia is the largest producer of oleochemicals globally and polyols are included here. These products increase the national income, Hazimah added.
Asked about the debate on whether it is acceptable to use food sources for industrial products, Hazimah said she does not feel it is an issue in Malaysia. For rural Malaysian farmers, being able to sell their palm oil into a value-added chain such as polyols improves their income and hence their standard of living, so it has social benefits in this way.
"I think it's the right choice to adopt this route, to offer such materials," Hazimah said.
PALM OIL BY NUMBERS
In 2009,Malaysia produced 17.56 million tonnes (mt) of crude palm oil and 2.09 mt of crude palm kernel oil.
MPOB says that "a consistent and predictable supply of palm kernel oil and palm oil has led to the development of the oleochemical industry in the country. Since 1979, the country has developed one of the largest complexes in the world, representing about 20 percent of the world's capacity. Some 17 oleochemical companies operate in Malaysia with a total capacity of 2.59 mt. In 2009, Malaysia exported 1.82 mt of oleochemicals,to more than 100 countries, with an export value of MYR 6409 million ($2043 million).The total value of palm oil exports in 2009 was MYR 47 807 million.
Major markets are the EU (25.3%), China (17.1%), the US (7.8%) and Japan (7.6%).
POPs already commercialised
Malaysian companies PolyGreen Chemicals (Malaysia) and Maskimi Polyol, are now making and selling palm-oil polyols.
Polygreen, part of lntermed, was involved in the early 2000s in a joint project with MPOB to develop and scale-up POP technology, and has a joint patent with MPOB on the process.
PolyGreen is now independent: its polyol production is at about 10 kilotonnes per annum (ktpa), while Maskimi's is running at some 6 ktpa, (see UTI Aug/Sept 2010 p 37).