For Siti Nikmatin, her efforts to help find a solution to deal with an abundant oil palm waste did not stop with her invention of a safety motorcycle helmet made using fibers from the crop’s fruit bunch.
The tireless researcher who is also a lecturer at the department of physics at the Bogor Institute of Technology’s Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences started to take an interest in oil palm bunches after having found a way to use fibers from rattan to produce motorcycle safety helmets as part of her doctoral thesis.
“There was this need for research related to the use of empty oil palm fruit bunches that can absorb this waste and turn it into a viable product of economic value,” Siti said, adding that she then took her doctoral thesis as a base to research the use of fibers from oil palm fruit bunches to replace the fiberglass usually used in helmet making.
The supply of rattan, she said was not only limited but rattan was also in great demand in the furniture industry. Palm oil fruit bunches, have been used to create compost or for energy generation but the supply was so abundant that most became mere waste.
She said that the fruit bunch were first processed to produce individual fibers of various lengths and in the case of the helmet, micro particles, which are then mixed with a polymer and given an additive to produce the shell of the helmet.
Her research, funded by funds from the Palm Oil Plantation Fund and backed by IPB and the higher education directorate general’s research department, managed to produce a prototype and later a finished product that has passed tests for the National Indonesian Standard (SNI) for regular motorcycle helmets and can be released to the market.
“This helmet is a product that has qualifications that meet the SNI testing standards and can be sold,” she said, adding that her helmets were much higher shock absorption capabilities that the regular motorcycle helmets available in the market, which she said were only made with polymer and no fibers.
Siti said that fibers, in this case from the oil palm bunch, accounted for 20 percent of the weight of the helmet shell. The use of the fibers and the process involved, of course, made the price of the helmet higher than regular helmets but Siti said efforts continue to search for ways to push prices lower.
She said that while a polymer helmet would cost between Rp 80,000 to Rp 100,000, one using the oil palm fibers would cost between Rp 200,000 and Rp 500,000. “This is already lower than the Rp 350,000 we sold it initially,” she said.
“When it concerns helmets, the people’s focus is not that it is safety equipment, but a requirement so that you are not ticketed by the police…. The hardest thing is to change the mindset of people. At the moment it is, the cheaper the better,” Siti said.
Although some 5,000 to 7,000 helmets have been produced, sales have been limited to exhibitions and at events such as seminars, local or international or during educational drives.
Besides still awaiting the issuance of the SNI certificates and getting prices more affordable, Siti said that she also hoped that the government would help open the market for the product.
“My hope is that first, the government support the marketing of this national product,” she said adding that the helmet was not only 80 percent made with local materials, by Indonesian manpower but was able to turn waste into a product with an economic value.
She also referred to other products that are produced using the same fibers such as motorcycle parts and car elements such as fenders which can already be produced using fibers from the oil palm fruit bunch.
The government, she said could come out with regulations to support the marketing of these components, by specifying that not only should a certain percentage of the raw material be produced domestically, but also add further details such as that they should use local fibers or raw material.
Siti said that the production of the helmet, and other products made with a mixture of polymers and oil palm fibers, are divided into three stages. The fibers are produced in cooperation with a company, the making of the shell of the helmet by another and a number of other companies are involved in the assembly and painting of the helmets, she said.
“Our research is continuing, to find ways to absorb more of the empty fruit bunch,” she said. She added that she was working on producing sheets of fibers and polymers with the fibers either used in a weave or naturally. The sheets, she said, could even be used to manufacture bulletproof vests or other protective devices.
“Research funding should also continue for other products. We have already proven that the result of our research can give rise to new small and medium scale enterprises,” Siti concluded.