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Postcards from the field: Seeing methane capture in action


In this installment of Postcards from the Field, Clairie spends her last day visiting a methane capture facility

Tired after all the scientific adventures at SMARTRI, we were once again back in the car going back to the mess to have lunch. I was to fly back to Jakarta that evening. Taking a bumpy car ride is part and parcel of any field trip. But the insightful presentations and stories told by the people on the ground made these slight discomforts small in comparison to their passion and love. I was amazed to be greeted by the warm Indonesian hospitality, passion and the humility that comes from being so in touch with their land. When one hears the term “palm oil”, it is difficult not to think of harrowing pictures of dead orangutans, blackened burnt forests and city skylines shrouded by haze. But after all I had seen so far, I wondered if we are giving due credit for the real efforts on the ground.

The methane capture plant was first and foremost very pungent. We took a tour around the plant and climbed up to view the waste water from which methane gas is extracted.  The methane gas is produced from bacterial activity and is harnessed by GAR as energy to fuel other downstream refining processes. Looking down at the pool of brown muck, I shuddered and commented that if we fell in how awful it would be. I was told I would immediately die from methane poisoning and this made me take a cautious step back.

Our last stop was the processing mill where all the FFB collected from the plantations eventually end up. The mill, like the methane capture plant was very pungent. The difference being that over here the smell was strangely reminiscent of baked sweet potato. With this weird impression in mind, I followed the guide around to explore the plant.

postcard5Processing palm oil

It was like a huge steam punk movie set. First, the FFBs that arrive are sterilised in hot water, then the crude palm oil is squeezed out from the orange mesocarp with a pressure strong enough to extract the oil but not enough to crush the kernel shell. After the CPO is extracted, the kernel shells are crushed to extract the kernel palm oil within. Watching the huge metal barrels of freshly cooked FFB get lifted by chain pulleys to the next step of the process,

Outside of the plant were heaps of brown kernel residue. They were dry, clean husks of kernel that were so abundant, they piled high like little hills. Looking at the heaps of brown husks, one might think it’s a waste. But Pak Gotz smiled as he grabbed a handful for a closer look, “All these are burnt for energy too”. Again, I see the beautiful circular loop of sustainable palm oil. It is no longer a linear input à process à output, but a circular flow where the output is recycled to create more input.

Join Clairie in her final instalment of her journey as she muses on what she has learnt.

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