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Oil Palm: An Important Biofuel Plant

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Oil palm, Elaeis guineensis Jacq., is a tropical tree species that produces bunches of oil-rich fruit resembling avocados. The plants grow in lowlands of the humid tropics (15°N to 15°S), where rainfall of 1800 to 5000 mm is evenly distributed throughout the year. Oil palms mature slowly but, once established, yield as much as 10.6 tonnes of oil per hectare (ha) per year, although the average is less than half that amount. They begin to bear fruit after about 3 years and remain in use for some 25 years, so annual maintenance costs are low. Palm oil from the mesocarp, which contains 45% to 55% oil, is similar in composition to soy oil. Oil from palm kernels, extracted from the endosperm, contains about 50% oil rich in medium-chain fatty acids and well suited for biodiesel applications. Malaysia is the major source of these oils, producing 13.4 billion pounds of mesocarp oil and 3.5 billion pounds of kernel oil from about 3.8 million ha. Plants are harvested by hand, but typical planting density is only 150 plants/ha, and labor costs are not a major factor in production. Because of the relatively straightforward conversion of palm oils to diesel and food uses, palm acreage in the tropics is expected to expand significantly.

Credit or Source: C. Somerville, Stanford University


U.S. DOE. 2006. Breaking the Biological Barriers to Cellulosic Ethanol: A Joint Research Agenda, DOE/SC/EE-0095, U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science and Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. (p. 78) (website)

Prepared by the Biological and Environmental Research Information System, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, genomicscience.energy.gov/.