Synthetic Fats Could Reduce Palm Oil Reliance
Forget farmed fat; synthetic oil is the future, say researchers.
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Palm oil has a bad reputation. Across Southeast Asia, the versatile vegetable fat is farmed on land that was once millions of acres of lush rainforest.
This taint of deforestation has led many conscientious consumers to avoid all things palm oil and seek out alternative fatty products.
But these well-intentioned choices could be supporting agriculture that fells even more trees. Because, when it comes to efficiency, palm oil is hard to beat. To produce the same amount of vegetable oil and meet global demand, crops like coconut trees and sunflowers would take up 4–10 times as much land as the oil palm plant currently does.
So, what’s the solution? Well, one group of researchers at the University of California, Irvine, (UCI) has a suggestion: forget the farms; go synthetic.
Low fat, low emissions
In a new paper, published in Nature Sustainability, the researchers posit that swapping out palm oil for synthetic fats could save the world millions of tons of carbon emissions per year.
These synthetic fats, they say, could be manufactured from natural gas feedstocks, such as methane (CH4).
“The process is made up of a series of thermochemical steps, most of which are already performed at large scale independently of one another,” Steven Davis, a UCI professor of Earth system science and lead author of the paper, told Technology Networks.
“At the chemical level, the process starts with carbon as CO2 or CH4, converts these into syngas, the syngas is then polymerized into long-chain alkanes (also called paraffins), then the paraffins are oxidized into fatty acids and purified. Finally, the purified fatty acids are used to formulate high-performing fats such as beef tallow or milkfat equivalents.”
Despite the power needed to compress and purify these gases, the UCI team say the manufacturing process would, overall, put out less carbon than traditional agriculture.
Indeed, whereas agricultural fats correspond to roughly 1–3 g CO2-equivalents per kilocalorie (eq/kcal), the UCI researchers estimate that molecularly-identical fats synthesized from natural gas feedstock (using current average US electricity) would produce around 0.8 g CO2-eq/kcal. These emissions would fall to nearly zero, the researchers say, if the carbon used was then captured from the air.
The concept is in its infancy, but there is precedent; during the food shortages of the Second World War, German chemists successfully synthesized margarine from coal.
Refining and upscaling these initial experiments could be a vital component to reducing the world’s reliance on palm oil and meeting net-zero strategies.
“The big sources of GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions related to agricultural oil production are land-use change (especially for palm oil, which is driving deforestation in many places) and volatilization of fertilizer nitrogen into N2O,” Davis said.
Palm oil agriculture currently accounts for 450 million tons of CO2-eq greenhouse gas emissions per year, worldwide, and takes up 20 million hectares of once biodiverse tropical forest.
Professor Steven Davis was speaking to Leo Bear-McGuinness, science writer for Technology Networks.
Reference: Davis SJ, Alexander K, Moreno-Cruz J, et al. Food without agriculture. Nat Sustain. 2023. doi: 10.1038/s41893-023-01241-2