Some people might think that complex problems need complex solutions. But for those trying to do what they can do best in their profession, a simple innovation may offer a solution to bigger problems.
Amid the gloom besetting the palm oil industry, with low prices, the phasing out of palm oil-based biofuel by the European Union, and the bad image the industry has in consumer countries in the West, it’s a bit of fresh air to see palm oil waste being turned into something useful.
Two female chemistry students of the state-owned 11 Maret University (UNS) in Solo, Central Java, have managed to produce an adhesive bandage for diabetic wounds using waste of the palm oil processing industry, empty palm oil fruit bunches.
The two students, Alfiyatul Fithri dan Wahyu Puji Pamungkas, who worked on the project under the guidance of their tutoring lecturer, Maulidan Firdaus, for some eight months, named their product “Pulosakti” (Stands for “Plester luka dari tandan kosong kelapa sawit dan ikan sidat” or Adhesive bandage from empty oil palm fruit bunches and eels).
The team had their breakthrough in May 2019, when they finally obtained the appropriate formula for a clear hydrogel to produce the bandage.
“In order to get a clear (colorless) hydrogel, the starting material for the cellulose must be white. In the process, we initially obtained brownish cellulose. Then through optimization and trial and error, an appropriate formulation was found to obtain white cellulose,“ Maulidan, told The Palm Scribe about their Aha! moment.
Although a mere adhesive bandage, the idea came following some very serious consideration.
“The amputation rate for diabetic wounds is worrying with a relatively high number, so the idea was to make a special adhesive bandage for diabetic wounds. On top of that, since the European Union is planning to abolish palm oil as biofuel in its renewable energy for reasons related to deforestation, it is necessary to think about the sustainability of the palm oil industry,“ the 40-year-old Maulidan said when asked about the reasons behind his research.
“We also see that empty oil palm bunches are still considered as waste, that is why their economic value needs to be improved,” Maulidan added. He said that cellulose produced from the empty fruit bunches is combined with albumin (a substance well-known for its healing power) extracted from eels to create the adhesive bandage.
The team, after submitting a proposal and going through a series of competitions last year, received a 20 million Rupiah fund from The Indonesian Oil Palm Estate Fund (BPDPKS) for their research. The selection process was steep with only 20 proposals chosen for funding from some 400 research proposal submitted.
According to BPDPKS’ corporate secretary, Achmad Mauli, funds have been distributed to support research and development on the palm oil industry since 2015, with the recipients being to universities and agencies.
“By the end 0f 2019, we are projecting to have 75 research activities. One of the researches that we are proud of is the use of palm trunks for flooring (replacing regular wood) and this will be exhibited in Berlin, Germany on June 26,” Mauli told The Palm Scribe.
According to Mauli, the research to make use of palm stem was encouraged by President Jokowi’ following a visit to an oil palm plantation during the kick off of the government’s replanting program.
“President Jokowi was obviously annoyed at the cut trunks scattered around the plantation and was asking why did we not make use of it,” Mauli said.
The long and winding road to success
For Maulidan, the biggest challenge faced by the team was finding the right and efficient method in the synthesis stage so that the formula could work perfectly.
“For example, during the bleaching stage, we faced constant failure for up to a whole month,“ Maulidan said, adding that time management and responsibility sharing also posed their own challenges to the team.
Although Pulosakti was developed with diabetic wounds in mind, it has yet to be tested on diabetic wounds because of difficulties to get the willing diabetic patient to take part in the test.
“The effectiveness of Pulosakti has been tested for regular wounds (not specific on diabetes) on mice, and the test results showed that the combination of hydrogel and albumin from eels in Pulosakti had excellent and faster healing ability than conventional or commercial adhesive bandages,” Maulidan said.
For the time being, the team has obtained a copyright for Pulosakti, and are now working on patents rights while also working on the product improvement process.
“We also plan to introduce Pulosakti at the KIWIE 2019, an international event held in South Korea as well as for the 2019 student research competition final held by BPDPKS,” the tutoring lecturer said while adding that they are also preparing for the publication of the research results for international journals.
“If anyone wants to fund or use the formula (after the patent right is received), we plan to commercialize the product for mass production,” he added.
What does this invention mean to them, in terms of the future of palm oil and Indonesia as the top producer of the commodity?
“This new discovery ,utilizing empty oil palm bunches- considered as one of the solid wastes with very large percentage- and turned it into wound bandage that is proven to be more effective compared to conventional plasters and high-cost commercial wound gels, provides new innovations that diversify palm oil derivative products for the sustainability of the palm oil industry in Indonesia,“ Maulidan said confidently.
“There are a series of benefits if biomass (in this case palm-based) is used as a starting material. An adhesive bandage is just one innovation, there are many other products that can be derived from palm oil which should be campaigned by the government and related parties,“ he said.
One of his students and team member, the 22- year old Alfiyatul Fithri said that she felt very grateful and happy to be part of the team.
“With the encouragement and guidance from Dr. Maulidan Firdaus, this research was able to succeed in a timely manner. In addition, through this research, we know how it feels to fail, before being successful. But mostly, I am proud that this product can benefit others,“ she told The Palm Scribe.