In a single day, you might use a dozen products made with palm oil, an ingredient in many consumer products such as toothpaste, cereal, laundry detergent, instant noodles, and vitamins. By some estimates, as many as half of the packaged items in a grocery store might contain it.
That's been a long-term problem for orangutans, which happen to live in the same Indonesian rainforests that are bulldozed to make way for palm oil plantations. So now researchers are working an alternative: A fake palm oil made from yeast and food waste.
Despite some recent efforts to produce palm oil more sustainably, more than 80% of orangutan habitat has disappeared over the last 20 years. In the fall of 2015, illegal slash-and-burn cutting practices led to massive wildfires that threatened a third of the world's remaining population of the apes. It's not just orangutans at risk; the most recent fires alone caused $9 billion in damages.
Around 60 million metric tons of palm oil are produced each year, and more than half comes from Indonesia. But if the new palm oil alternative can be scaled up for industrial production, that may change.
The new process, developed by researchers at the University of Bath and University of York in the U.K., creates the right conditions for a particular yeast called Metschnikowia pulcherrima to produce a thick oil that's almost exactly the same as palm oil.
"[Palm oil's] wide use comes down to two key properties: an exceptionally high melting point (it has a thick consistency at room temperature) and very high saturation levels (it's much healthier than unsaturated fat)," says Rod Scott, head of the University of Bath’s Department of Biology & Biochemistry and part of the palm oil research team. "Some vegetable oils get close to one of the two, but none to both. Therefore [it's] important that our yeast ... produces oil that closely mimics palm oil to allow its 'drop-in' into existing products and processes."
The yeast eats sugar made from food waste and turns that into the oil. "Waste biomass from farming or food is ideal," says Scott. "Such biomass can have uses, but nothing with the value or environmental impact of a palm oil substitute. Our yeast grows very well on the type of food waste collected for recycling."
Turning food waste into something the yeast can eat normally takes a lot of energy—using something called "steam explosion"—but the team has come up with a different way to do it using a microwave. That also happens to be much cheaper.
With a new $6.3 million grant from the U.K. government, the researchers are working on scaling up their process, first in 30-liter bioreactors, and later to industrial size containers. "Ultimately, cost will determine success or otherwise," says Scott. "This must be close to the trading value of palm oil, unless our substitute attracts a premium from environmentally conscious purchasers within the supply chain."
It might take several years before it's ready for commercial production—and with luck, that will be in time for orangutans, who some experts say may be extinct in the wild by 2023.