Looking to zero discharge from palm oil mills
Mahbob Abdullah 

Datuk Lim Chai Beng, managing director of CB Industrial Product Holding Bhd, has set his mind to keep fruit processing simple. It has gone far from the way it is done in the African villages, where I have seen men boil the fruit and skim the oil off the top, but there was a lot of wastage. It is still done that way there today.

In the mills, the improved method of extraction by plantation companies since the 1950s has been more complex, and the oil recovery has nearly doubled. It involves the arrival of the fruits on the ramp and letting them fall into cages, of 2.5 tonnes each. They are then pulled by steel cables and capstan into the horizontal sterilisers to be cooked.

I have often seen it done, and much of the recovery would depend on the art and skill of the operator of the steriliser lever. He controlled the cooking by the way he judged the ripeness of the bunches. He would see to it that the fruits got their full one hour in that long tube, and he could handle the lever to vary how much steam to go in, using his judgment on the ripeness of the bunches. Or he could stick to the standard pressure needed at three bar, and temperature of 135°C, let the steam out, and then blow in again for a three-peak cycle.

Lim tells me in his office in Teluk Panglima Garang, near Banting, Selangor, when I went to visit him: “We changed the concept with the Modipalm Engineering system. We did away with the operator. We use automatic control, so the result is more consistent, even in the late hours at night, when supervision is low. It is a continuous process, not by batch.


Saving energy and labour

“So you can imagine there is less handling. We do not use cages, and the fruit travels by conveyor that feeds into the steriliser, and we need fewer workers. Then it moves along with normal atmospheric pressure, and the steam temperature does not go higher than 100°C.

“It saves on energy, no pressure vessel involved, and with less spillage of fruits that can occur in cages. We use a conditioner to break up the bunches to allow better steam penetration, and the oil recovery is higher.”

Lim had estimated it to be about 0.5% higher, so in other words it is 2.5% better than the conventional system that gives about 20% oil extraction of fresh fruit bunches, which means higher revenue. The lower costs of maintenance will add to the gains for the users.

Yet I had found the first mill using the continuous sterilisation system to be in Indonesia, at London Sumatra plantations. Then other plantation owners followed, including Sinar Mas and Astra Plantations.

In Malaysia, success came later. Lim has built his mills in 12 countries, with about 120 units. There are 40 units in Malaysia, 50 in Indonesia, three in Thailand, and six in Papua New Guinea.

Lim had started in the smallest way.

“I had one thousand ringgit and started with that in 1982,” he says. “It was in Pandamaran, Klang, and I built parts and went to each company to make my sales. A technical director in Harrisons and Crosfield, Mr Wilson, saw how desperate I was for business and he gave me the first orders, and that got me going until I could have enough capital to build a mill using the Modipalm system.


Market cap of nearly RM1b

“That was in 1997. We had to continue with research work to improve the performance. Later, we also bought a company that makes boilers, and that helped us to give a one-stop service, and we were happy as the sizing of various equipment is very important,” he says.

“We can raise the level of efficiency. I still have to convince a few more big clients how we can help them.”

Now Lim controls a company with a market capitalisation of nearly a billion ringgit.


A planter too

“Most of our revenue is in building mills. Our income also comes from other sources, including plantations. We have 32,000ha of land bank with part of it planted, and the palms are beginning to be harvested. We also invest in some plantation companies that can one day give a steady revenue, while we go on filling our order books for building the mills,” he says.

“We keep doing more research work as we go along, and we work closely with MPOB (Malaysian Palm Oil Board). Demand keeps changing, and I am convinced we are ahead by producing oil with better quality than (that) produced in other types of mills, with minimum oxidation by using lower temperature.

“But the next step is for us to do a mill with zero discharge. One part of our company, PalmitEco Engineering, will do that. It will mean there is no effluent. Now the mills use several ponds, and this treatment will be replaced by a simple way which I would call evaporation using an evaporator plant.

“The effluent is dried with the water recycled for the boilers, and the solid goes for composting. That will be good for the palms and the environment. As far as I know, no one has succeeded in doing it on a commercial scale yet.”

Lim is, of course, passionate about his work of building mills.

“We want to build more mills using our innovations,” he says. “And we know how to run mills too. In my view, the plantation companies are very good in running plantations. But building a mill is not their business. Mills are a very specialised job, so they should allow specialists to build, and to manage, and most likely that will get even better results.”

Later, he took me and my friend Leow Kok Yuan from Sime Darby days to tour his big workshop, a crowded place with equipment being made.

“We have bought a bigger place,” he says. “We will move some of these activities soon.”


A family that works together

I had known Lim for many years, because we attended the same seminars and conferences, so I had to ask him the next question: “I follow your progress in the press and in your annual reports. And, in my view, your biggest success is in keeping your siblings working in unison, and keeping the family ties intact. Now I see your sons also agree to work with you. What is your secret?”

That took Lim longer to answer. Probably, no one had asked him that before.

“This company is, of course, the result of team effort,” he says. “My relatives have helped a lot. I could not have done it alone. And along the way, I must tell you, problems could arise now and then. Like all else, they have to be managed. But sometimes they take longer to smooth out, and it means we would have to have long talks. To us that is the best way.”

Soon, Lim will be going to Thailand to visit a mill which has broken new ground in innovations, and it operates in meticulously clean conditions.

At 60, his interest hasn’t waned. “There is always something to learn,” he says.

Mahbob Abdullah is a former planter. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 278.