Oil of palm thrives in humid tropical conditions, found 8–10 degrees north and south of the equator. Originally discovered in West Africa, the oil palm tree is now cultivated across Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Indonesia and Malaysia dominate palm oil production. Together, they contribute to 85-90% of the total global yield. Other significant producers include Colombia, Nigeria, and Thailand.
Harvesting and Processing of Palm Oil Fruits
The journey of palm oil starts in producing countries with the planting of oil palms. These trees bear fruits approximately 2-3 years post-planting. When individual fruits begin to fall, it signifies their readiness for harvest.
From Trees to Mills
After harvesting, the red fruit bunches are transported to mills within 24 hours. At the mills, these fruit bunches are categorized based on quality. The ripeness of the fruit plays a pivotal role in determining the quality of the bunches.
During the processing, palm oil mills produce palm oil mill effluent, empty fruit bunches, and a mix of kernel, fibers, and oils. Among these, the fruit bunches are the primary source of palm oil.
Production of Palm Oil
The next phase involves oil extraction. The fruit bunches undergo steam treatment, crucial for eliminating bacteria and halting enzyme activity, thus preventing fruit degradation.
The steaming process softens the fruits, facilitating the release of natural oil. Post steaming, the fruit mass is processed to separate the various components. The natural fruit undergoes high pressure to extract oil and water. This mixture, over time, separates, with the palm oil forming a top layer. This process yields the initial raw palm oil, which requires further refining.
By-products: Empty Fruit Bunches and Kernel
The residual empty fruit bunches are repurposed as fuel for steam boilers.
These bunches are also composted. Microorganisms decompose the biomass, producing nutrients. These nutrients are utilized in the oil palm plantations, enhancing soil fertility and water retention.
The kernel is processed in a specialized mill to extract palm kernel oil.
The crude oil stored in tanks at the mills is transported to refineries worldwide. Upon reaching, it undergoes treatment to make it apt for food production and consumption, resulting in a safe, colorless vegetable oil.
The crude oil is first washed with water, allowing water-soluble compounds to separate. As oil is less dense than water, it forms a layer on top. This oil then undergoes bleaching, wherein it’s mixed with a specific natural earth to bind and remove impurities.
A steam process ensues, eliminating volatile components, resulting in a healthy vegetable oil.
Manufacturing and Uses
Post refining, the oil is directed to a fractionation facility where it’s segregated into different fractions based on properties like melting points. These fractions find their way into various products, from margarines to cookies and creams, showcasing the versatility of palm oil.