Enzymes for the palm oil industry
Mahbob Abdullah 
Rushworth worked in many parts of Unilever on editable fats and oils

MARTIN Rushworth got me interested in finding out how enzymes can help with raising the productivity in the palm oil industry. That was how one day I agreed to go with him in his Jaguar and entered the grounds of Novozymes Malaysia Sdn Bhd in the Technology Park Malaysia at Bukit Jalil in Kuala Lumpur.

Novozymes works in its single-storey circular building, just like in the countryside, and I could walk on the grass outside strewn with yellow petals of chempaka flowers shed by the mature trees. Inside, there was an open space and garden, private, except for staff and visitors, who could enjoy coffee, and sit on the steel chairs and relax, while the offices were along the arch, including the boardroom, which had big glass windows that I could see clearly into the trees where probably a birdbath would complete the picture of a rural setting.

In the boardroom, I was given a briefing by Rushworth, whom I had first met many years before (in 1985) as we were both in Unilever. I was on a visit to Kinshasa in DR Congo on my way up the river to visit plantations, and he was working as production director in Masarvco, a company that was processing palm oil into cooking oil, soaps, detergents and margarine. Rushworth was born in Manchester and after a degree in engineering he went to work in many parts of Unilever on editable fats and oils.


Research work

He was involved in research work when in Holland, and later he was posted to Africa where he lived for many years including Zimbabwe where he met his wife, a French girl who had followed her parents to live in several countries. His last posting was in Malaysia where he decided to retire, and he now lives with his family in Kuala Lumpur. Like many professionals who are fit, he did not want to stay quietly for long, and now he works as the commercial head of palms for Novozymes.

He explained that enzymes have a big role in the food industry, but yet it is not well-known because it is something one cannot see. While it is used in the production of bread, beer, soaps as well as detergents, it is also used for many other products. The work that Novozymes has done from its home base in Denmark has led it to being present in 130 countries, and employs 6,000 people including over 600 scientists. The business has over 700 products generated in nine production sites globally.

Novozymes is a leader with a 48% market share in enzymes, and 14% of its revenue is put back into research and development each year. Research is done to find the most suitable enzymes that can be used as catalysts to speed up processes, and make them more efficient. I understand that microbes of the right types are cultured to produce enzymes in the most precise way so that the results are identical each time the enzymes are used. The applications are in many industries, including in the manufacture of foods and in various stages of agriculture.

For the use in palm oil mills, these enzymes can be sprayed in the digesting process. It works best under a certain air pressure, pH and temperature, as a catalyst to release the oil from the cooked fibre of the fruit. The enzymes soften cell-walls in the palm fruit for oil to be released more readily. The viscosity is also reduced, allowing a saving of hot water required for dilution by 75%. With the use of enzymes, the extraction rate can increase by 0.7% to fresh fruit bunches (FFB), on a conservative estimate. The usual extraction rate is around 20%, so the increase can add more value. A mill of 30 tonnes per hour capacity can process over 120,000 tonnes of FFB a year. The costs of the enzymes will be a matter for negotiation with Novozymes.

The head of the business is TC Tan who is also responsible for food and beverage business operations for the Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa region. He has many years of experience in chemical companies including DuPont. He joined the briefing together with Rasmus Frederiksen from Denmark, who is responsible for regional marketing, and Muhammad Iqbal who is responsible for business development. Later, as I walked through the laboratories with their array of equipment for testing and calibration, I saw that the team of scientists was young, articulate, and clearly selected for their passion in  their work.

I have had discussions with other producers of enzymes but no one had given me the confidence that Novozymes could. It has strong credentials in its special fields, and its growth is powered mainly by repeat business. Millers can expect the same precision to ensure a high level of quality control, and safety. The enzymes will help lower the costs of production with less use of energy, and therefore it will reduce the rate of carbon emission. With the help of the enzymes, processing at a lower temperature will be possible, and in turn this will help maintain oil quality with low oxidation levels.

Novozymes clearly are equipped with the team and the capital expenditure to be here to stay. It will be keen to work with various industries to help them grow through using biochemical reaction. It also knows that the market can be large and it is well-placed to be in the region, especially with Malaysia and Indonesia being the two biggest producers of palm oil.

Apart from supplying enzymes to raise the extraction rates, the business has products that can help increase productivity in other aspects, including in effluent treatment, biodiesel production, and in specialty fats including cocoa butter equivalents. For CBE, only palm products will need to be used, and without the need for other crops like shea nut or illipe fats. For palm kernel expellers, the enzymes can also be a catalyst to improve the suitability of cake-meal for the poultry industry.

Novozymes also has microbes for use in the field to stimulate plant growth, although this is a minor aspect of its business for now compared to the use of enzymes. But it also aims to help food growers even more, whose planted areas may get smaller over time as the population gets bigger.

We left for lunch at the Bukit Jalil Golf And Country Resort, not far from the office, and it was clear that the lunchtime crowd were still celebrating the Lunar New Year, with yee sang and the long-drawn cries of yam seng that drowned any effort to talk shop. But it was all right with me. For in that one morning Rushworth and the Novozymes team had given enough details for me to take in. I had learned more about enzymes than I could have anticipated. It is certainly a part of innovation which we can add to our efforts in increase production and lower costs in the industry. It gives us a chance to remain competitive and attain the prosperity that we are all crying for.

Mahbob Abdullah is a former planter. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 275.