Will This Palm Oil Alternative Save Orangutans From Extinction?

By Kim Bussing on February 17, 2016

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Image: Facebook.com/palmoilproductsinAmerica

Palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the world. It is found in a wide variety of products ranging from vitamins to chocolate, bread, laundry detergent and even biofuel. The oil is popular because it has an exceptionally high melting point and contains primarily saturated fats. The former allows the oil to maintain a semi-solid consistency at room temperature making it easy to spread, while the latter makes it the perfect substitute for trans fats which are generally deemed unhealthy. It also has the highest yield of any oil crop and is cheap to produce and refine.

But the oil's popularity comes at a steep price. Palm trees need a rainforest climate — consistently high humidity and temperatures, and large amounts of land to grow. As a result, thousands of acres of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia, the world's biggest palm oil producers are being razed down to make room for plantations.

image: tutor2u.net

With half of the 60 million metric tons of palm oil coming from Indonesia, one of the greatest casualties of this phenomenon has been the orangutans. In the last 20 years, over 80% of the mammal's habitat has been destroyed. To make matters worse, in 2015, illegal destruction of some rainforests resulted in wildfires that endangered one-third of the remaining orangutans. Palm oil plantations have also threatened tigers, elephants, and rhinos and been associated with the previously pristine region's increasing water and air pollution.

Though the easiest solution is to stop using palm oil so ubiquitously, that is not going to happen unless manufacturers can find an alternative. This is not easy given that no other naturally occurring vegetable oil has both the qualities of palm oil.

Photo Credit: WWF

Now thanks to a team of researchers from England's University of Bath and University of York there is some hope. The scientists have been able to create an artificial alternative using food waste or feedstock and M. pulcherrima, a yeast that grows on leaves, fruits, and flowers. The yeast eats the sugars from the biomass and turns it into a thick oil that has almost identical qualities to palm oil. The best part is that the yeast can be commercially produced in virtually any kind of weather and requires substantially less land than palm trees.

The scientists who have been working on the project for three years say their biggest challenge was to find an economical way to convert the sugars in the food waste to a form the yeast can consume easily. The conventional method, called “steam explosion,” where water is violently boiled or flashed into steam, requires a lot of energy and is therefore not practical for widespread use. After some experimentation, they were able to replicate the process using a microwave!

The yeast eats sugar from food waste and turns that into oil (Photo:University of Bath/Fastcoexist)

The team led by University of Bath lecturer, Dr. Chris Chuck, is now trying to test if they can manufacture the oil in larger quantities and more economically. That's because to replace palm oil they will have to reduce the cost of producing the fake oil from the current $1,200 USD a ton to between $800 - $900 USD a ton.

Though optimistic, experts are not holding their breath. After all, this is not the first time an alternative to palm oil has been touted. Past efforts include artificial substitutes made using algae and the jatropha tree. However, neither was commercially viable.

Photo credit: orangutans.com.au

Meanwhile, things are not looking promising for orangutans. Animal conservationists predict that if the rainforest destruction is not stopped soon, wild orangutans may become extinct by 2023.

Resources: Independent.co.uk,worldwildlife.com,guardian.com,wikipedia.org

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VocabularyPlay Game

biomassconservationistsconsistencyconventionaldeemeddestructionendangeredexceptionallyexperimentationextincthabitathumiditylatteroptimisticrazedreplicatesaturatedtoutedubiquitouslyviablewidespread
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Reading Comprehension (4 questions)

  1. Why is palm oil so popular?
  2. What do palm trees need to thrive?

Critical Thinking Challenge

What are some other side effects of deforestation?

Vocabulary in Context

After some experimentation, they were able to replicate the process using a microwave!

In the above sentence, the word replicate most likely means:

(a) to bend or fold back

...

638 Comments
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  • matthewl1515
    matthewl1515Wednesday, May 24, 2017 at 11:40 am
    Sav the orangoutangs!
    • WonderingWoman Friday, April 21, 2017 at 6:45 pm
      I have a question who even created or found palm oil first?
      • shame manFriday, April 21, 2017 at 8:08 am
        shame on palm oil everyone
        • Tamara AsencioSaturday, April 15, 2017 at 5:17 pm
          Breaks my heart. Ppl are do so greedy. When will it stop :((
          • lolMonday, February 13, 2017 at 11:07 am
            haha funny
            • LETS BE REAL Monday, February 13, 2017 at 9:43 am
              no major companies are going to stop using these oils. its cheap and it sells. most people wont even care about this and will continue to use these products. Companies are not worried about these problems because they are still making money so why is everyone making a big deal of this?
              • Vicky Sunday, February 12, 2017 at 1:26 pm
                # save the animals ❤❤❤❤
                • billyThursday, February 9, 2017 at 10:27 am
                  sup
                  • bobThursday, February 9, 2017 at 10:27 am
                    good
                    • mean girlTuesday, February 7, 2017 at 4:10 pm
                      so sad and cute i just said some thing nice save animals stop giving those palm oil stuff to animals

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