Oil palm tree is scientifically known as Elaeis guineensis jacq. It actually originates from West Africa. It was brought to Malaysia, then Malaya, by the British in early 1870’s as an ornamental plant. The first commercial planting took place decades later in 1917 in Tennamaran Estate in Selangor.
A Frenchman, Henri Fauconnier started the first commercial planting of oil palm trees after being luckless with his coffee plantation. Hence, the beginning of oil palm plantation in Batang Kali, Selangor.
By 1960s, the Malaysian government introduced land settlement schemes for planting oil palm as a means to eradicate poverty for the landless farmers and smallholders. The oil palm plantations in Malaysia are largely based on the estate management system and smallholder scheme.
Malaysia has become the second largest producers and exporters of palm oil in the world, after Indonesia. The industry provides employment to more than half a million people and livelihood to an estimated one million people.
The Oil Palm Tree
Oil palm has both male and female flowers on the same tree, making it a monoecious crop. Weevils play an important role in its pollination. Each tree then produces what is called fresh fruit bunches, weighing between 10 and 25 kilograms with 1000 to 3000 fruitlets per bunch. The bearing of fruits usually start after 30 months of field planting and will continue for the next 20 to 30 years.
The fruitlets are spherical or elongated with changing colours to indicate the varying degree of maturity. They start with blackish purple but turn orangy red when ripe. Each fruitlet consists of a hard kernel (seed) enclosed in a shell (endocarp) which is surrounded by a fleshy mesocarp.
In Malaysia, the oil palm trees planted are mainly the tenera variety, a hybrid between the dura and pisifera. The palm trees may grow up to sixty feet and more in height. The tenera variety yields about 4 to 5 tonnes of crude palm oil (CPO) per hectare per year and about 1 tonne of palm kernels. The oil palm is the most efficient oil-bearing crop in the world, requiring only 0.26 hectares of land to produce one tonne of oil while soybean, sunflower and rapeseed require 2.22, 2 and 1.52 hectares, respectively, to produce the same.
Perfect Time to Harvest
To determine whether an oil palm tree is ready to be harvested, the surrounding area of the tree is inspected. When there are 5 or more palm fruits on the ground, the time is right to extract the fresh fruit bunches.
Getting Palm Oil
Fresh fruit bunches that are harvested are brought to the mill. There, the fruits are sterilized in a sterilizer through saturated steaming. During this process, the enzyme responsible for quality deterioration is deactivated. The fruits would have softened and detached themselves from the bunch as an outcome.
The sterilized bunch and detached fruits would then be fed into a thresher. It is a huge drum made up of gapping bars with rotating lifter plates inside. A lot of rolling and tumbling happens here similar to a laundry dryer. The empty bunch is discharged at another end of a thresher while sterilized fruits fall through the gaps in the bars.
From the thresher, sterilized fruits enter the digester for separating the flesh from the nuts, subsequently breaking up oil cells in the fruit flesh. They are mashed under continuous steam blast to facilitate separation.
The digested mash is separate into liquid and solid fractions in a screw press machine. It works similar to a kneading action; ensuring oil cells that remain stubbornly unbroken are ruptured. There would also be dried solids after the oil has been pressed out, called press cake. Press cake would come out of the machine through gaps in the machine and later processed for kernel oil.
Afterwards, the mash from the screw press machine would be cleared of any remaining solids in a vibrating screen machine. It enters a static tank called clarifier. Here, the oil floats at the top as it is lighter while heavy fat sludge settles at the bottom. The oil is channeled into a clean oil pipe. The sludge goes into a sludge operator. Any remaining oil in the sludge is taken out, and goes back into the clarifier tank. From there, the clean oil goes into machine called purifier. This removes even more impurities or dirt from the clean oil.
The purified oil enters the vacuum dryer where it is dried. Any water content in the purified oil, vaporizes in the vacuum, and goes to a water tank. The oil itself goes to a storage tank, awaiting use.