May 10, 2022

Scientists in Singapore have developed what could be a sustainable alternative to palm oil which could be used in food production with “greener and healthier” results.

A team at
Nanyang Technological University (NTU) discovered how to produce and extract plant-based edible oils from a common type of microalgae which are said to have superior properties to those found in palm oil.

Professor William Chen, director of NTU’s Food Science and Technology (FST) Programme, who led the project, said: “Developing these plant-based oils from algae is yet another triumph for NTU Singapore, as we look to find successful ways to tackle problems in the agri-foodtech chain, especially those that have an adverse impact on the environment. 

“Uncovering this as a potential human food source is an opportunity to lessen the impact the food supply chain has on our planet.”

The oil produced from the microalgae contains more polyunsaturated fatty acids, which can help reduce ‘bad’ cholesterol levels in blood and lower a person’s risk of heart disease and stroke. It also contains fewer saturated fatty acids, which have been linked to stroke and related conditions.

Companies worldwide are continuously looking for the best sustainable alternative to palm oil, which remains the most widely consumed type of vegetable oil on the planet and can be found in many packaged food products.

sustainable alternative to palm oil
The Indonesian government rejected a proposal to reclassify oil palms. Credit Jason Cooper / Unsplash

The search for a sustainable alternative to palm oil continues

Before the pandemic, farmers were producing 77 million tonnes of palm oil for the global market, and it is expected to reach 107.6 million tonnes by 2024.

This quest for sustainable alternatives has become even more critical after the Indonesian government rejected a proposal to reclassify oil palms as a forest crop. 

The proposal was ostensibly meant to resolve the problem of illegal plantations operating inside forest areas, and would have redefined plantations as forests, and new plantings as reforestation.

The algae oil innovation presents a possible alternative to the cultivation of palm trees for oil and reflects NTU‘s commitment to mitigating its impact on the environment, as outlined in its 2025 strategic plan.

To produce the oils, pyruvic acid, an organic acid that occurs in all living cells, is added to a solution with the algae Chromochloris zofingiensis and exposed to ultraviolet light to stimulate photosynthesis.

Around 160 grams of algae would be required to produce enough plant-based oil to manufacture a store-bought chocolate bar which weighs 100 grams. 

After 14 days, the microalgae is washed, dried, and then treated with methanol to break down the bonds between the oils and the algae protein, so that the oils can be extracted.

Besides serving as a greener alternative to cultivating palm trees for plant-based oils or fat, it also has the potential to help cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, as well as food waste.

At scale, producing plant-based oils with natural sunlight, instead of using ultraviolet lights, would help remove CO2 from the atmosphere by converting it to biomass and oxygen through photosynthesis.

The scientists have also developed a process to produce the key reaction ingredient needed to cultivate the microalgae oil, pyruvic acid, by fermenting three organic waste products, such as soybean residues and fruit peels.

Professor Chen said: “Our solution is a three-pronged approach to solving three pressing issues. 

“We are capitalising on the concept of establishing a circular economy, finding uses for would-be waste products and re-injecting them into the food chain. In this case, we rely on one of nature’s key processes, fermentation, to convert that organic matter into nutrient-rich solutions, which could be used to cultivate algae, which not only reduces our reliance on palm oil, but keeps carbon out of the atmosphere.”

The findings were published in the Journal of Applied Phycology.

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