By: Eur Ing Hong Wai Onn
The world is witnessing a paradigm shift towards cleaner and more sustainable energy sources. In this transition, green hydrogen has emerged as a promising solution that has been able to decarbonise various sectors. Unlike blue and grey hydrogen, which are produced from fossil fuels with high carbon emissions, green hydrogen is generated through electrolysis using renewable energy sources. Recent statistics highlight the growing significance of green hydrogen in the energy landscape. The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that green hydrogen production could increase by more than tenfold, reaching approximately 5.75 million tonnes by 2030.
Despite the growing interest in green hydrogen production, there are several obstacles and limitations that hinder its widespread adoption. One of the key challenges is the availability and scalability of renewable energy sources, which are essential for producing green hydrogen. Although solar and wind power have made significant advancements, their intermittent nature presents a hurdle for achieving consistent and continuous green hydrogen production. This intermittency requires a reliable and abundant supply of renewable energy to ensure the uninterrupted generation of green hydrogen. Addressing this issue is crucial for overcoming the challenges and bottlenecks associated with the large-scale implementation of green hydrogen production.
The palm oil sector is one notable industry that is known to hold tremendous potential for producing green hydrogen. We can unlock a sustainable pathway towards green hydrogen production by harnessing the vast biomass resources available in palm oil mills. The palm oil industry possesses a notable advantage in terms of biomass availability due to the substantial amount of organic by-products it generates, such as empty fruit bunches (EFB). These biomass resources offer potential as feedstock for generating renewable energy using different processes, particularly thermal conversion. However, it should be noted that other biomass resources, such as palm pressed fibre and palm kernel shells, are excluded from consideration in this specific scenario. This is because palm oil mills are self-sufficient in terms of energy, and these biomass resources are typically utilised as solid fuel for steam boilers during operational hours.
Utilising palm oil biomass for renewable energy
As opposed to being utilised as mulching material in oil palm plantations, EFB, after undergoing processing, can be transformed into EFB fibre, which serves as a valuable resource for the production of renewable energy. Palm oil mills, which operate according to the seasonal nature of oil palm, can leverage EFB fibre to generate renewable energy during periods when processing is not taking place. This renewable energy can then be harnessed for the electrolysis process, facilitating the production of green hydrogen through electrolysis.
Palm oil mills face no challenges in providing the required pure water for hydrogen electrolysis. These mills have well-established water treatment systems that cater to both their domestic water needs and the requirements of water-tube steam boilers. Therefore, they possess the necessary infrastructure to ensure the availability of pure water as a medium for the electrolysis process. Since steam boilers operate optimally with soft water rather than hard water, palm oil mills have an advantage. Palm oil mills have a pre-existing supply of treated water that is suitable for electrolysis without the need for additional treatment. The soft water produced by these mills is essential in the electrolysis process as it helps prevent scaling and extends the lifespan of the electrolysis cell. Moreover, it ensures the production of high-quality hydrogen gas that is free from impurities. Therefore, the availability of soft water from the existing supply for steam boilers aligns perfectly with the requirements of hydrogen electrolysis. This allows palm oil mills to efficiently utilise their water resources for both steam generation and hydrogen production.
Let us consider a hypothetical scenario where a typical palm oil mill, with a production capacity of 45 tonnes per hour and operating for 16 hours a day, becomes the focal point. By harnessing the net heat derived from EFB fibre, it is projected that approximately 420 kWh of green hydrogen can be generated on a daily basis. Now, if this technology is adopted by 50 per cent of the palm oil mills in Indonesia and Malaysia, the two largest palm oil producers globally, it is estimated that a significant amount of approximately 56,700 MWh of green hydrogen can be produced collectively. This demonstrates the substantial potential for green hydrogen generation through the utilisation of palm oil mill resources on a broader scale during the nine-month period of low cropping. To put this into perspective, assuming an average per capita energy consumption of 4,470 kWh, this amount of energy is equivalent to powering approximately 13,000 residents in Malaysia for an entire year. While it cannot fully replace fossil fuels, it marks a promising beginning in the journey towards sustainable energy transition.
Green hydrogen production in palm oil mills provides numerous advantages across various aspects
By utilising biomass as a renewable energy source, we can minimize our reliance on fossil fuels for energy generation, leading to a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, the production of green hydrogen provides an alternative to fossil fuel-based hydrogen, which is commonly used in industries that rely on hydrogen as a feedstock or energy source. This shift to green hydrogen can help reduce carbon-intensive practices in various sectors, contributing to global efforts in mitigating climate change.
Furthermore, the implementation of green hydrogen production in palm oil mills presents a unique opportunity for the palm oil industry to enhance its sustainability credentials. The industry has faced criticism and concerns over deforestation and habitat loss. Embracing green hydrogen production showcases a commitment to adopting environmentally responsible practices and promoting a circular economy within the sector.
By leveraging the existing biomass resources and water treatment processes in palm oil mills, we can harness the potential of green hydrogen production and drive positive environmental change. This not only aligns with the goals of reducing carbon emissions but also positions the palm oil industry as a leader in sustainable practices. It allows palm oil mills to maximise the value of their biomass resources while simultaneously strengthening their carbon sequestration efforts.
Revolutionising palm oil mills and energy transition with green hydrogen
By utilising the abundant biomass resources available in palm oil mills, we have the opportunity to generate renewable energy and produce green hydrogen with a substantially lower carbon footprint compared to traditional hydrogen production methods. This integration of green hydrogen in palm oil mills not only aligns with global efforts to combat climate change but also enhances the sustainability profile of the industry.
As the world strives to achieve a carbon-neutral future, the palm oil industry can play a pivotal role in driving sustainable energy solutions. By embracing the production of green hydrogen, palm oil mills have the opportunity to become key players in renewable energy generation within their respective regions. This proactive step demonstrates their commitment to environmental stewardship and catalyses the transition towards a greener and more sustainable future.
Eur Ing Hong Wai Onn is a chartered chemical engineer and a Fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers and the Royal Society of Chemistry. He is also the author of ‘A Chemical Engineer in the Palm Oil Milling Industry’.