MALAYSIA – The country’s first fully automated Polyhydroxylalkanoate (PHA) Bioplastics Pilot Plant that enables the production of versatile biodegradable plastic materials from palm oil is now in operation, pushing Malaysia’s efforts to provide alternatives to petroleum-based plastics.
The first of its kind, the plant, which is located in Jalan Beremban, was designed and built through the smart partnership between the Malaysian government research technology company SIRIM Berhad, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) and the US’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Scaled-up to 2,000 litres, the bioreactor facilities and integrated manufacturing process of the plant is able to produce various options of PHA materials from crude palm kernel oil and palm oil mill effluent.
“With a capacity of 2,000 litres, the plant is linked to the waste treatment system and specially designed to remediate the effluent of the pilot plant,” said Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation Datuk Seri Dr Maximus Johnity Ongkili at the plant’s opening ceremony on 12 July 2011.
“I am confident that the establishment of this plant will further boost the production of our palm oil as it will become an important feedstock for biodegradable plastic in future.”
According to the minister, the bioplastics market currently constitutes about 10-15% of the total plastics market, and this is expected to increase between 20-30% by 2020.
Malaysia’s bioplastics industry is at an advantage, claims Dr Maximus, because of its cost: the production cost of bioplastic in the global market for instance from Brazil in which sugar cane being used as the carbon source, is at least US$9.47 (RM28) per kilogram compared to only US$2.03 to US$2.36 (RM6 to RM7) per kilogram, by using palm kernel oil.
“The huge gap on pricing will definitely able to help our local companies which are currently in collaborations and in joint ventures with established overseas companies in bioplastic industry, to bring down their productions cost,” he said.
In 2006, an initial project under the Intensification of Research in Priority Areas (IRPA) saw MIT succeed in cloning PHA biosnythesis genes. The project was then organized into two phases, the first of which was led by SIRIM, involving PHA biosynthesis process and recovery research and development, overseeing the material and product testing and product development applications while the R&D was carried out by USM, UPM and MIT.
The second phase, which falls under Technofound Programme, scaled up selected optimised processes of the first phase to pilot scale production capacity and the development of integrated manufacturing process.
The strain to produce PHA from crude palm kernel oil and its optimised processes that is ready for up-scaling were developed by USM, while UPM converted palm oil mill effluent into organic acid which was then fermented to produce a very useful bioplastic material known as PBHV (polyhydroxybutyrate-co-hydroxyvalerate). Meanwhile the MIT has put their expertise in metabolic engineering into use by developing recombinant strain that is very competent in producing high yield of PHA.
SIRIM Vice President, Dr Zainal Abidin said the plant was totally designed and built locally by local engineers and the fabrication of the reactors meets Malaysian authority requirements.
“Through the establishment of the pilot plant SIRIM is ready to provide its services in designing bioreactor or pilot plant design for other projects to other institutions or commercials companies in the future,” he said.
“The success is also proof of capabilities to other countries that Malaysia is able to market its own home-grown technology at the global market apart from developing and scaling up plants to commercial scales.”