You are on page 1of 18

Refinery of Palm Oil

Jit Kang’s Homepage

Introduction to Palm Oil: From dust to dawn

The economical history of the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) began in
the rain forests of western Africa in the late 19th century. Since its
introduction into Malaysia in the early 20th century until the early sixties its
impact on the economy was marginal. For many years the economy of
Malaysia had depended for its wealth and prosperity upon rubber. In 1961,
Malaysia embarked on an intensive agricultural diversification program, and
the crop that has achieved the most notable success since then is palm oil.
Within a relatively short period, Malaysia became the world's largest
commercial producer and exporter of palm oil in 1966. Diversification into
oil palm means that the country is now less dependent on the fortunes of
rubber as a plantation crop.

Palm Oil a Cost Effective Product

Palm oil is obtained from the flesh of the palm fruit. Each palm tree
produces approximately one fruit bunch, containing as many as 3000
fruitlets, per month. In addition, each palm tree continues producing fruit
economically for up to 25 years. This ensures a constant stable supply, as
compared with other annual crops.
Naturally, palm oil is characterized as stabilized oil due to its
chemical composition. As such, it can be used in most food applications
without hydrogenation, thus, reducing production cost by as much as 30%.
Palm oil also is priced competitively and can represent a saving of upto
several cents per pound, compared to other edible oils.
Palm oil is available in a variety of forms: crude palm oil, palm olein,
palm stearin, RBD palm oil, fractionated palm olein and pal mid-fraction.
While most of the oil Malaysia exports is RBD palm oil and RBD palm
olein, the range of products is available to suit a variety of manufacturing
needs and in forms that are ready-to-use and require no further processing.

Palm Oil Composition

Palm oil is extracted from the mesocarp of the fruit of the palm Elaeis
guineensis. There are a few varieties of this plant but Tenera, which is a
hybrid of the Dura and the Pisifera, present abundantly through out the
whole Peninsular.
The mesocarp comprises about 70 - 80% by weight of the fruit and
about 45 -50% of this mesocarp is oil. The rest of the fruit comprises the
shell, kernel, moisture and other non fatty fiber.The extracted oil is known as
crude palm oil (CPO) which until quite recently was known as the golden
Palm oil like all natural fats and oils comprises mainly Triglyceries,
mono and diglycerides. Free fatty acids, moisture, dirt and minor
components of non oil fatty matter referred to collectively as unsaponifiable

1. Tryglyceride
It is a chemical compound of one molecule of glycerol bound to three
molecules of Fatty Acid.
CH2 – OH + R1-COOH CH2 – COOR1

CH – OH + R2-COOH CH – COOR2 + 3H2O

CH2 – OH + R3-COOH CH2 – COOR3

Glycerol Fatty Acid Triglyceride Water

The fatty acids could be of the same type or they could be different.
The property of a triglyceride will depend on the different fatty acids that
combine to form the triglyceride.
The fatty acids themselves are different depending on their chain
length and degree of saturation. The short chain fatty acids are of lower
melting point and are more soluble in water. Whereas, the longer chain fatty
acids have higher melting points. The melting point is also dependent on
degree of non-saturation. Unsaturated acids will have a lower melting point
compared to saturated fatty acids of similar chain length.
The 2 most predominant fatty acids in palm oil are C16:0(saturated)
palmitic acid and C18:1 (unsaturated) oleic acid. Typical fatty acid
composition of palm oil is given as:

C12:0 Lauric - 0.2%

C14:0 Myrstic - 1.1%
C16:0 Palmitic - 44.0%
C18:0 Stearic - 4.5%
C18:1 Oleic - 39.2%
C18:2 Linoleic - 10.1%
Others - 0.9%

2. Mono and di-glycerides and FFA

In the presence of heat and water the triglycerides break up by a
process known as hydrolysis to form free fatty acids thus yielding mono and
di-glycerides and FFA which is of crucial importance to the refiners.
Hydrolysis can be represented as below:

CH2 – COOR1 + CH2 – OH



CH2 – COOR3 + CH2 – COOR3

Triglyceride Water Diglyceride FFA

Mono and diglycerides account for about 3 to 6% by weight of the

glycerides in the oil. Good oils having lower amount of mono and
diglycerides is said to be of great importance in the fractionation process
because they act as emulsifying agents inhibiting crystal formation and
making filtration difficult.
The amount of mono and diglycerides and FFA is reduced in the
process of refining as can be seen from their concentration in the
DFA(Distillate Fatty Acid).

3. Moisture and Dirt

This is a result of milling practice. Good milling will reduce moisture
and dirt in palm oil but normally it is in the range of 0.25%.

4. Minor Component
These are classified into one category because they are fatty in nature
but are not really oils. They are referred to as unsaponifiable matter and they
include the following:
a. Carotineoids
b. Tocopherols
c. Sterols
d. Polar Lipids
e. Impurities

As a conclusion, palm oil is one of the most widely consumed edible

oils in the world today. Beside, it contains more monounsaturated fatty acids
than many other vegetable oils. Recent scientific studies indicate that
consumption of monounsaturated has some beneficial effects in order to
maintain a healthy life style. In addition, compared with other vegetable oils,
palm oil is a rich source of the anti-oxidant vitamin E containing about 360 –
600 ppm in its refined form. There are certain reports show that:
• Palm oil did not increase baseline serum cholesterol
• Palm oil did not affect LDL/HDL ratio.
• The vitamin E found in palm oil behaved as an anti-oxidant.

Physical Refinery: The first step toward edibility

Palm oils consist mainly of glycerides and, like other oils in their
crude form, small and variable portions of non-glyceride components as
well. In order to render the oils to an edible form, some of these non-
glycerides need to be either removed or reduced to acceptable levels.
In term of solubility study – glycerides are of two broad types: oil
insoluble and oil soluble. The insoluble impurities consisting of fruit fibres,
nut shells and free moisture mainly, are readily removed. The oil soluble
non-glycerides which include free fatty acids, phospholipids, trace metals,
carotenoids, tocopherols or tocotrienols, oxidation products and sterols are
more difficult to remove and thus, the oil needs to undergo various stages of
Not all of the above non-glyceride components are undesirable. The
tocopherols and tocotrienols not only help to protect the oil from oxidation,
which is detrimental to flavour and keep ability of the finished oil, but also
have nutritional attributes, a- and b-carotene, the major constituents of
carotenoids, are precursors of vitamin A. The other impurities generally are
detrimental to the oil’s flavour, odour, colour and keep ability and thus
influence the oil’s usefulness.
The aim of refining is therefore to convert the crude oil to quality
edible oil by removing objectionable impurities to the desired levels in the
most efficient manner. This also means that, where possible, losses in the
desirable component are kept minimal. The impurities which are contained
in the crude palm oil (CPO) is shown in table 1.0:

Substances Content
Free Fatty Acid (FFA) 3 - 5%
Gums (phospholipids,
phosphotides) 300 ppm
Dirt 0.01%
Shell Trace
Moisture and Impurities 0.15%
Trace metal 0.50%
Oxidation Products Trace
Total Carotenoids 500 - 1000 mg/ke
Table 1.0 Composition of CPO

General speaking, the refining routes of palm oil is quite identical.

There are two routes are taken to process crude oil into refined oil; which are
chemical (basic) refining and physical refining. The methods differ basically
in the way the fatty acids are removed from the oil. Physical refining, which
eliminates the need for an effluent plant for the soap stock, involves
subjecting the oil to steam distillation under higher temperature and vacuum
for removal of the free fatty acids. The physical refining is used to remove
the free fatty acids. The refining of physical plant is practiced to subject the
oil to steam distillation. The typical refining process is shown in Figure 1.0.

Physical Refinery Process Description

The raw material which is used by physical plant is crude palm oil
(CPO) from the CPO storage tank. CPO is feed at the flow rate about 35-60
tons/hour. The initial temperature of CPO is at 40 – 60°C. The feed is
pumped through the heat recovery system, that is plate heat exchanger to
increase the temperature around 60 – 90°C.
After that, there is about 20% of the CPO feed to into the slurry and
mix with the bleaching earth (6 – 12kg/ton CPO) to form slurry (CPO +
Bleaching earth). The agitator inside the slurry tank will mixed the CPO and
bleaching earth completely. Then, the slurry will go into the bleacher.
At the same time, another 80% of the CPO is pumped through another
plate heat exchanger (PHE) and steam heater to increase the CPO
temperature to 90 – 130°C (it is a desired temperature for the reaction
between CPO and phosphoric acid). Then, the CPO feed is pumped to static
mixers and the phosphoric acid is dosed at 0.35 – 0.45 kg/ton. Inside there,
the intensive mixing is carried out with the crude oil for precipitation up the
gums. The precipitation of gums will ease the later filtration process, avoid
the scale formation in deodorizer and heating surface. The degumming CPO
then will go into bleacher.
In the bleacher, there are 20% slurry and 80% degummed CPO will
mix together and the bleaching process occur. The practice of bleaching
involves the addition of bleaching earth to remove any undesirable
impurities (all pigments, trace metals, oxidation products) from CPO and
this improves the initial taste, final flavor and oxidative stability of product.
It also helps to overcome problems in subsequent processing by adsorption
of soap traces, pro-oxidant metal ions, decomposes peroxides, colour
reduction, and adsorbs other minor impurities. The temperature inside the
bleacher must be around 100°C – 130°C to get the optimum bleaching
process for 30 minutes of bleaching period. The low pressure steam is
purged into bleacher to agitate the concentrated slurry for a better bleaching
The slurry containing the oil and bleaching earth is then passed
through the Niagara filter to give a clean, free from bleaching earth particles
oil. The temperature must be maintain at around 80 – 120°C for good
filtration process. In the Niagara filter, the slurry passes through the filter
leaves and the bleaching earth is trapped on the filter leaves. Actually, the
bleaching earth must be clear from Niagara filter after45minutes in operation
to get a good filtration. Bleached palm oil (BPO) from Niagara filter is then
pumped into buffer tank as a temporary storage before further processing.
Usually, a second check filter, trap filter is used in series with the
Niagara filter to double ensure that no bleaching earth slips occur. The
presence of bleaching earth fouls deodorizer, reduces the oxidative stability
of the product oil and acts as a catalyst for dimerizaition and polymerization
activities. So, the “blue test” is carried out for each batch of filtration to
ensure the perfect filtration process. This test indicates whether any leaking
is occurring in Niagara filter or trap filter. Hence, any corrective actions can
be taken intermediately.
The BPO comes out from the filter and passes through another series
of heat recovery system, Schmidt plate heat exchanger and spiral (thermal
oil: 250 – 305°C) heat exchanger to heat up the BPO from 80 – 120°C until
210 – 250°C.
The hot BPO from spiral heat exchanger then proceeds to the next
stage where the free fatty acid content and the color are further reduced and
more important, it is deodorized to produce a product which is stable and
bland in flavor.
In the pre-stripping and deodorizing column, deacidification and
deodorization process happen concurently. Deodorization is a high
temperature, high vacuum and steam distillation process. A deodorizer
operates in the following manner: (1) dearates the oil, (2) heat up the oil, (3)
steam strips the oil and (4)cools the oil before it leaves the system. All
materials if contact are stainless steel.
In the column, the oil is generally heated to approximately 240 –
280°C under vacuum. A vacuum of less than 10 torr is usually maintained
by the use of ejectors and boosters. Heat bleaching of the oil occurs at this
temperature through the thermal destruction of the carotenoid pigments. The
use of direct steam ensures readily removal of residue free fatty acids,
aldehydes and ketones which are responsible for unacceptable odor and
flavors. The lower molecular weight of vaporized fatty acids rises up the
column and pulls out by the vacuum system. The fatty acid vapor leaving the
deodorizer are condensed and collected in the fatty acid condenser as fatty
acid. The fatty acids then is cooled in the fatty acid cooler and discharged to
the fatty acid storage tank with temperature around 60 – 80°C as palm fatty
acid distillate (PFAD), a by-product from refinery process.
The bottom product of the pre-stripper and deodorizer is Refined,
Bleached, Deodorized Palm Oil (RBDPO). The hot RBDPO (250 – 280°C)
is pumped through Schmidt PHE to transfer its heat to incoming BPO with
lower temperature. Then, it passes through another trap filters to have the
final oil polishing (120 – 140°C) to prevent the earth traces from reaching
the product tank. After that, the RBDPO will pass through the RBDPO
cooler and plate heat exchanger to transfer the heat to the CPO feed. The
RBDPO then is pumped to the storage with temperature 50 – 80°C.

Palm Fatty Acid Distillation Plant

The separation of liquid mixture into their several components is one
of the major process of the chemical industries, and distillation is the most
widely used method of achieving this end: it is the key operation of the oil
refinery. Though out the chemical industry the demand for pure products,
coupled with a relentless pursuit of greater efficiency, has necessitated
continued research into techniques of distillation. The distillation column is
used in this purpose.

The distillation column which have to be designed with a larger range

in capacity than any other types of chemical engineering equipment, with
single columns from 0.3 to 10m in diameter and from 3m to upwards of 75m
in height. The purpose of designing is to achieve the desired product quality
at minimum cost, but also to provide constant purity of product even though
there may be some variation in feed composition. The vertical cylindrical
column provides in a compact form, with the minimum of ground
utilization, a large number of separate stages of vaporization and

In practice, distillation may be carried out by either of two principal

methods. The first method is based on the production of a vapor by boiling
the liquid mixture to be separated and condensing the vapors without
allowing any liquid to return to the still. There is then no reflux. The second
method is based on the return of part of condensate to the still under such
condition that this returning liquid is brought into intimate contact with the
vapor on their way to the condenser. Either of these methods may be
conducted as a continuous process or as a batch process.

PFAD Plant Description

a) Feed Raw Material - Palm Fatty Acid Distillate (PFAD)
b) i) Major Product Produced - Distillate Fatty Acids (DFA)
ii) By Product Produced - Precut-Lighter Fatty Acid
- Residue

PFAD Process Description

The feed Palm Fatty Acid Distillate (PFAD) from storage tank with
temperature around 50 – 100°C will first passes through a heat exchanger
The temperature of PFAD will increase to approximately 200 –220°C. Then
the hot feed will enters to the Degasifier for separating some impurities and
light fatty acid presented in the feed under vacuum system.

After that, the heavy components of fatty acid (C10, C12, C14, C16 &
C18) come out from the bottom of Degasifier will go into column C for
more separation between light and heavy components of fatty acids. Before
that, there are three distillation column are used in distillation process. The
products of these 3 columns are as follow:

1. Column A: Precut

2. Column B: Distillate Fatty Acid (DFA)

3. Column C: Residue

In column C, the feed with temperature 220 – 255°C will further

heating by thermal oil boiler until temperature become 240 – 300°C under
vacuum system. The fatty acids will evaporate under the vacuum condition
and separation of light fatty acid and heavy fatty acid will occur. At the top
of column C, the light fatty acid (precut with lower carbon number <C16)
from the evaporation become vapor is continuously pulled out by the
vacuum system. The precut then passed through the heat exchangers and
cooled down by the soft water and PFAD feed before going to storage.

At the same time, the heavy fatty acid from the bottom of Column C
(C16 & C18) is pumped to Column B for further separation. There is high
temperature inside the column B which is supplied by thermal oil reboiler
(290 – 310°C) will contribute to the vaporization of fatty acids. Therefore
the temperature will increase (220 – 250°C) during the distillation process
because of the higher boiling point of the fatty acids feed. The light fatty
acid (DFA) from the vaporization of fatty acid is pulled out by the vacuum
system into a reflux holder. When the refluks is overflow, the excess DFA is
pumped to the heat exchangers and cooled down by the soft water and the
PFAD feed. The DFA then is further cooled down in spiral heat exchanger
(hot water/DFA) and plate heat exchanger (Cooling tower water/DFA)
before sending to storage at 60 – 90°C.

On the other hand, the bottom product of column B is residue, the

heavy fatty acids component is pumped to the heat exchanger
(Residue/PFAD feed and Residue/Hot Water) before going to storage tank.
The uncompleted distillate will recycles back to column B for further

Fractionation: Value added process?

The demand for liquid oils has increased in recent years, mainly for
salad and cooking uses and an important property for such oils is low cloud
point, which is the temperature at which turbidity appears when the oil is
cooled under standard conditions. Liquids oils with a low cloud point are
desirable because of the widespread use of household refrigeration.

In order to cater for a wide range of markets, the Malaysian refiners

start to offer product which are “harder”(Stearin) and “more liquid”(olein)
than palm oil. These are accomplished trough a simple process of
fractionation which is based on two fundamental operations:
1) Crystallization
2) Filtration
Fractionation of palm oil can be described as follow. The triglycerides found
in the oil have different melting points. At certain temperature, the lower
melting temperature triglycerides will crystallize into solid separating the
oils into both liquid (Olein) and solid (Stearin) fraction. The fraction can
then be separated by filtration.
It is worth mentioning that in palm oil fractionation, palm olein is the
premium product and the palm stearin is the discount product. In Malaysia,
fractionation of palm oil into palm olein and palm stearin is accomplished
using two types of processes which are “Viz Dry” and “Detergent

Fractionation Plant Description

a) Feed Raw Material - Refined Bleached deodorised Palm Oil

b) i) Major Product Produced - Refined Bleached Deodorised Palm Olein


ii) By Product Produced - Refined Bleached Deodorised

Stearin (Stearin)

Fractionation Process Description

The dry fractionation is used to separate the palm olein and
palm stearin from the RBDPO produced by physical treatment. The RBDPO
is passed through the further fractionation process to get various grade of
palm olein and palm stearin. Usually, there are three types of olein are
produced: (1) normal grade olein, (2) super grade olein and (3) olein with
cloud point 7 – 8°C.

Crystallization Process
Firstly, the RBDPO feed must pass the quality specification,
colour<2.6R and FFA< 0.075 is fed into the heat exchanger. The RBDPO
feed is heated up by hot waters around 75°C. After that the oil is kept
homogenized at about 70°C in homogenizes before the start of
crystallization. The idea is to destroy any crystals present and to induce
crystallization in a controlled manner in the crystallizer.

After that, the oil is pumped to the crystallizer. The crystallization

system is a batch type and is equipped with special crystallizers operating
alternatively. These crystallizers are made up of vertical cylindrical vessel
full of thermo-regulated water which submerged barrels containing the oil to
be fractionated: each of these barrels is fitted with a mechanical agitator. An
automatic station controls the temerature in the various crystallizers.
The crystallization process is carried out to remove the higher melting
glycerides which cause liquid oils to become cloudy and more viscous at
low temperature. There are 3 factors (temperature, time and agitation), have
a fundamental importance on the formation and character of the crystal:
1. The lowering of temperature causes, because of supersaturating the
higher melting component to separate from a solution.
2. Agitation facilitates the formation of small crystals.
3. Time with a gradual decrease in temperature and stillness, promotes the
formation of longer crystals.
The solution is pumped batch-wise into the crystallizer according to a pre-
established programme. In the crystallizer, the crystal formation and growth
occurs as the oil is agitated and cooled sing chilled water and cool water
filled in the jackets or cooling coils of the crystallizer. Cooling can be
governed by controlling either the oil or water temperature.

Filtration Process
After the crystallization process, the slurry from buffer tank passses
through the filtration process for the physical separation between RBD palm
stearin and RBD palm olein. Presently, the membrane filter is used for this
filtration. Another alternative for this purpose is by employing drum filter
for separation.
The membrane filter is pressure filter where the filter pack comprising
alternatively plates and frames, or a series of chamber is compressed
between one fixed and one movable cover or bulk-head. The filter media are
located between each individual element. Cake will build up in the hollow
space between the elements and fall out of the press when the filter pack is
opened. Composition of the filter pack is by means of electrically driven
hydraulic system (75 bar), which controls the entire mechanical parts of
units, head plates, filter plates, plate shifting device with the built in panel

Hydrogenation is the most widely used method of all the oil
modification processes, to reduce the degree of unsaturated in the fatty acid
groups of the glycerides. It is a catalytic process whereby the number of
double bonds are reduced and by the same time isomerization of the residual
fatty acids is promoted. Liquid oils with unsaturated triglycerides are thus
transformed into fats containing a higher % age of saturated triglycerides:
Hydrogenation is often called hardening of oils and soft fats.

Catalytic hydrogenation, which has been known in fat technology

since the beginning of this century, is used increasingly for the preparation
of ‘tailor-made’ fats. Depend on the condition of the reaction, the basic
reaction can be shown as follows:


R - C = C - R + H2 R- C – C – R

The complex system consists of three phases: liquid oil, gaseous

hydrogen and solid catalyst. Hence there are many different internal surfaces
through which the hydrogen molecules have to pass until they reach the
double bonds of the unsaturated triglycerides adsorbed on the catalyst
surface. As soon as the unsaturated bonds are saturated, the triglyceride
moves off the catalyst surface, thus enabling the next unsaturated molecule
to be adsorbed and processed.

The overall hydrogenation rage depends on the quality of the reactant

involved, the degree of refining of the oil to be hydrogenated, the activity
and nature of the catalyst. In addition reaction parameters such as hydrogen
pressure, catalyst concentration, reaction temperature, stirring, etc have an
influence. In spite of these numerous reaction parameters that affecting the
quality of the desired product, fat-technologist have resolved the operating
conditions required for the preparation of tailor-made fats. This process is
established mainly to add value to by byproducts from the refinery. The raw
materials are from refinery: Palm Fatty Acid Distillate (PFAD) and Refined
Bleached Deodorized (RBD). Basically, stearin is the main raw material for
this plant.

Hydrogenation Process Description

There are various kind of oils used as the feed of this plant depends on
the market demands, there are DFA, PFAD, RBDSt, precut and split residue.
Firstly, the fatty acid feed from the storage tank (60 – 70°C) is pumped to
the feed preheater. In the feed preheater, the fatty acid feed is heated up by
the hot hydrogenated FA from plant until 140 – 170°C, before entering the
reactor for hydrogenation process.

Then, the hot feed is transferred to the reactor autoclave for reaction.
The reactor consisted of the nickel catalyst which play an important role in
the reaction as follow:

1. To avoid modifiers, such as sulphur, likely to give higher “trans” acid

2. Comparatively high temperature to accelerate reduction of poly-
unsaturated without formation of saturates.
3. Reduced the hydrogen gas pressure.
4. Lowering the iodine value to improve stability and good yield of liquid
oil when winterized.
5. To remove materials responsible for clouding and solidification at low