Key Food, Cosmetics Industry Ingredient Synthesized with Yeast

£4.4m grant awarded to explore sustainable palm oil alternative on an industrial scale.

Photo of a young palm plantation.

Photo of a young palm plantation.

The demand for palm oil is increasing.

Its high melting point and high levels of saturated fat make it a common ingredient in cakes, biscuits, noodles and cosmetic products. It is also an important source of biofuels.

According to a 2013 estimate in the Journal of Modern Science, global consumption of palm oil will exceed 60 million metric tonnes by 2020. More than two-thirds of global palm oil production comes from South East Asia, which exports it to over 70 countries world wide.

The high demand for palm oil has led to rapid expansion of palm plantations, particularly in Indonesia where the vast majority of palm oil is produced. This has been linked to significant deforestation, water pollution and increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Palm oil thus presents a classic problem for manufacturing: it’s a high-demand, non-sustainable product which requires extensive transportation.

A Sustainable Alternative to Palm Oil

Fortunately, a team of engineers and scientists have begun work on producing a yeast-derived alternative to palm oil on an industrial scale. The team was recently awarded a £4.4m grant to pursue the project over the next four years.

Using sustainably-sourced waste feedstocks, researchers at the University of Bath demonstrated that the yeast Metschinkowia pulcherrima can be grown on a variety of agricultural and food waste. They also found that making slight changes to the growth conditions caused the yeast to produce a thick oil with nearly identical qualities to palm oil.

Now, a new inter-disciplinary team plans to scale up the process via a novel method for depolymerizing waste feedstocks using large-scale microwave heating.

“This project is an exciting opportunity for us to develop a renewable alternative to palm oil, while developing further sustainable technologies that could have a significant impact on many other UK sectors,” said Dr. Chris Chuck, lead researcher and lecturer in the University of Bath department of chemical engineering.

If the project proves to be feasible from a manufacturing standpoint, the monetary and environmental savings in transportation alone would make it worthwhile. The fact that palm plantations are a leading threat to orangutan habitats make it a good option from an ethical standpoint as well.

Mother and juvenile orangutans in the rainforest.

Mother and juvenile orangutans in the rainforest.

The joint project between the University of Bath and the University of York is being funded by Croda International, C-Tech Corporation and AB Agri.

For more information, visit the University of Bath website.