The Palm Scribe

Jamal Balfas on Oil Palm Replanting, Deforestation, and Source for Alternative Timber

Trunks from the replanting of oil palm plantations in this world’s largest palm oil producer can provide a stable supply of raw material that could replace the use of timber from forests, therefore relieving forests from the pressure of deforestation, a researcher said.

Jamal Balfas, who has conducted researches on the alternative use of oil palm waste since 1997, said that trunks from replanting programs had various uses, including a source of starch, as a fuel or energy source, but more importantly as a material that could replace timber.

“Oil palm can replace the need for a core that is traditionally sourced from forests. We can replace about 80 percent of the need for the core with oil palm wood. The environmental impact is thus that it can reduce the pressure arising from the need for wood from forests,” said Jamal who has worked with the research and development of forest product since 1984.

He explained to The Palm Scribe during a recent interview that core, the central layer that usually acts as a filler as well as an insulator in laminated boards or doors, can easily be replaced with dried oil palm wood which has a spongy characteristic. Resin can also be injected to fill the cavities and thus reinforce the strength of the core.

“The most important advantage of oil palm wood is that its supply is abundant and continuous,” said the holder of a Master of Science degree from the Australian National University.

Replanting will result in large volumes of oil palm lumber to accrue. With an estimated need to annually replant some 500,000 to 600,000 hectares of oil palm plantation, there would be a supply of wood of more than 100,000 cubic meters, much more than the annual supply of timber from forests.

As a timber material, oil palm wood is mostly used in the form of laminated veneer lumber (LVL), with glued layers of particles and veneers. These can be used for building structures, replacing sawn timber.

To use it as solid wood, oil palm lumber would have to be first dried in a kiln, to turn the starch inside the trunk into a natural glue, and then press the wood to make it solid. A lengthy and costly process when compared to the processing of other wood species.

Jamal said that LVL made from oil palm wood has a density similar to wood of the same class as Keruing wood (Dipterocarpus) or Kamper (Camphor) wood. It also has a higher price compared to those two kinds of wood.

The drawbacks of oil palm wood included, an extreme density distribution, a very high moisture content and a significant difference in structure and properties of oil palm wood in comparison to other “normal” wood.

The fact that raw material alternatives are still available from natural forests also does not encourage the development of oil palm wood as timber, Jamal said.

With funding from the Palm Oil Plantation Fund Management Agency (BPDPKS) The Research and Development for Forest Product where Jamal works is currently designing and assembling an oil palm wood processing machine. The compression machine, for example, is still at the laboratory scale only and does not yet exist for an industrial scale.

Although abundant in supply, the source of oil palm wood is not stationary and follows wherever replanting is ongoing. To address this, a mobile sawmill for oil palm wood is currently being developed, one that would be able to produce veneer on site that could then be transported and processed in factories elsewhere.

Jamal said that his initial research on oil palm wood started when authorities in North Sumatra issued a ban on the use of fire to clean areas after replanting. However at the time, in the latter half of the 1990s, the supply of other wood species were still abundant, making turning oil palm wood into timber not feasible economically.

Turning oil palm lumber into timber product is not an unknown territory, Jamal said. A company in Kota Pinang, North Sumatra did export thousands of cubic meters of plywood made of oil palm wood but this was halted when replanting ceased. A similar case took place with another company in Palopo, South Sulawesi.

As recently as last year, a plywood factory tried to use oil palm wood, ”But they saw that the processing of oil palm wood was not as easy as for normal wood,” Jamal said.

He said that based on his research, the ideal thickness of an oil palm veneer was at 5-6 millimeter but existing factory machinery can only produce veneer from other wood at around three millimeters thick. Readjusting the machinery means additional cost.

Besides challenges on the technical side, transportation of oil palm trunk is also deemed inefficient. Jamal describes it as “transporting large water containers” as, despite the large size of the trunk, the high moisture content leaves only a little actual lumber material after processing.

Jamal said that the best prospect for oil palm lumber was as veneers but more research should be conducted to find a good and effective way to produce them at the optimum thickness.

“What is needed is how to be able to produce a veneer with an even thickness, solid and free of cracks. If we can achieve this, there will no longer be any problem. We will be able to use it for a lot of wood products,” he said.

And he continued his work, alone, at his huge mechanical laboratory, looking for a way to come up with the ideal machine that would also help preserve the forests in his country.

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