Palm oil is used in a myriad of places around the world. From face creams to biodiesel, palm oil is everywhere in today’s modern world. Why? Because it’s a cheap(relatively), versatile substance that remains soft but solid at room temperature, is non-toxic and edible and can be produced by trees and sunlight.
It sounds like an all around winner but as the palm oil industry has grown along with massive tropical plantations of the oil palm major environmental damage is becoming evident. About 87% of the world’s palm oil is produced from plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia. The ripping up of rain forests has far reaching deleterious effects on the people and animals that were living there.
Now the insatiable appetite for palm oil is industrializing tracts of land in Africa with Nigeria leading the way in leasing out land for palm oil plantations.
Researchers at the University of Bath may have come up with an alternative to digging up the tropical forests and evicting the people and animals living there. Dr. Chris Chuck working with the university’s Centre for Sustainable Technology has worked with his team to develop an algae that produces oil that can mimic the qualities of palm oil. The name of the organism, Metschnikowia pulcherrima, is a mouthful but its needs are humble. The researchers are currently growing it in vats and feeding it a variety of foodstocks. It does not seem picky, happily digesting straw and waste food.
It is early days in their research. It is estimated that it will take about five years before industrial production of the oily yeast is in full swing. The humble requirements of the yeast will also bring into line the cost for the finished product making it competitive with the palm oil industry.
This useful little organism is widely used in the winemaking industry and is being investigated for its antimicrobial properties.