PalmwoodNet, funded by the German government and industrial partners, promises the most significant new wood resource in decades. Supplier was on hand at Ligna in 2019 where the project was released, to see what it’s all about.

As the World’s forests are progressively closed to logging, manufacturers look elsewhere for their wood resource. Palm Wood as a resource is in plentiful supply and is soon to become widely available as solid wood and board products for the furniture and cabinet industries. To support the project, five core partners have joined to take on specific development and implementation tasks. One of these partners is Leitz Tooling and Supplier’s Phil Ashley caught up with their head of R&D, Andreas Kisselbach at Ligna last year.

The resource

The Palm Oil resource is large and getting larger; the total plantation area for Oil Palms amounts to almost 20 million hectares worldwide. Oil Palm plantations are exclusively planted for Palm Oil which is used in the food and biochemical industries as well as biofuels. The project deals with the utilization of the currently wasted raw material, Oil Palm Wood. As the oil yield decreases after 25 years, the palms are replaced. The used palms are left to rot, in some cases chipped as fertilizer or even burnt. All three methods are detrimental for the environment due to rapid CO2 emissions.

The wood itself has some very good properties. It has a wide usable density range of between 150–800 kg/m3. The range is from Balsa at the low end to Beech at the top end. It has high compressive strength in fibre direction. There are no knots, and the wood has sufficient screw holding capacity for use in solid wood and panel products. The material has very good resistance to flame, good thermal insulation and good acoustic properties. As timber it is stable with minimal warping for use in all weather conditions. Interestingly, an Oil Palm is not a tree (dicotyledon) but a grass (monocotyledon).

There are negatives to the crop. Palm Oil can be found in a massive 40% to 50% of household products in Australia but to provide this benefit, an area the size of Germany has been bulldozed for Palm Wood plantations since 1990. There are the issues of environmental destruction, loss of biodiversity and human rights violations through massive and partly illegal planting of Oil Palm plantations and these have been widely reported. Resident species like Elephants, Orangutans, Rhinos and Tigers have lost their habitat because of Palm Oil plantations that can be found in Asia, Africa and South America. The leading oil palm producers are Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Nigeria.

Based on a planted area of about 20 million hectares, an average of 0.8 million hectares need to be replanted every year. Estimates forecast 100 to 120 million cubic meters of trunks per year would either be burnt or could be available as a replacement resource for wood panel products. It is a valuable and untapped resource but there are manufacturing issues such as extreme density distribution within the trunk, high water content, silicates, sugar and starch. Because of these characteristics, fungal decay starts quickly so Palm Wood needs to be processed within a few days of harvest. Sawing will have to be done near the plantation, special drying technologies have been established, and modifications to machinery and materials handling equipment have been developed.

The Partners

The five core partners are Jowat SE (Adhesives); Minda Industrieanlagen GmbH (Plant engineering and conveyor technology); Möhringer Anlagenbau GmbH (Sawmilling); Leitz GmbH and Boehlerit GmbH (Cutting tools); and Palmwood R+D in Freiburg. Our image shows from left to right, Professor Dieter Fink of the Rosenheim University; Dr. Jurgen Graef (Leitz); Professor Arno Frühwald from Hamburg Technical University; Dr. Hubertus Zeddies from Minda; Dr. Stefan Mohringer (Mohringer) and kneeling, Andreas Kisselbach of Leitz Tooling.

A number of private companies and plantation holders who have certified a substantial share of their plantation area according to international standards, have also joined in the study. The overall objective is the best possible use of timber from unproductive Oil Palms for the production of high value-added products such as one-layer and multi-layer panels, blockboards, gluelam in standard dimensions and cross laminated timber (CLT) in Thailand and Malaysia. In the framework of this project a Chain-of-Custody system for Oil Palm Wood which corresponds to that for normal wood products will be developed.

Both Leitz and Boehlerit are developing cutting processes and establishing suitable working steps and procedures. This involves the creation of suitable cutting materials and tools to achieve the required quality and efficiency of cutting processes. Mr. Kisselbach said that several products had been designed and produced, along with a ‘handbook’ of processes for working the material. Mr. Kisselbach also said that Leitz had developed special carbides that will be used for sawblades for milling the logs, and that diamond tipped cutters would be needed for secondary processing on edge banders and CNC routers.

The Meisterschule (School of Apprentices) in Ebern, Germany have produced sample panels and door elements using 100% Oil Palm Wood, or just the core in Palm, with the face layer composed of other types of veneers. The doors are 3kg lighter than a conventional wooden door with the same sound insulation performance as particleboard. Leitz’s CEO Jürgen Koppel said one solution for using the material as furniture where components need to be inserted was to use different densities of the wood in certain areas, removing the need for special nails.

The Benefits

The use of Oil Palm trunks can significantly reduce the pressure on natural forests by replacing the timber extracted. In Asia, the decrease in available timber from natural forests and relatively small volumes from plantations have already led to wood shortages. The use of Palm Wood means forests can be kept intact and this makes the forests more sustainable. Using Palm Wood that would otherwise be burnt is economically sound practice and good for the environment. Without using Oil Palm Wood, population and economic growths will convert Asia into one of the largest importers of wood and wooden products.

Palm Wood was subjected to a Life Cycle Assessment study by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research Heidelberg GmbH (IFEU) in Germany. The results show that Palm Wood, when used for wooden products, has a significant advantage over wood obtained from conventional sources in terms of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emission Savings. Its production has lower GHG emissions compared to wood from conventional sources. Palm Wood is an Eco-friendly resource material that behaves like forests and act as green lungs for the world.

Oil Palm plantations have been heavily criticised in recent years but should provide a major source of raw material for the furniture industries in years to come. The first commercial production of the new resource should occur as soon as next year. PalmwoodNet’s mission is to turn what was once a waste product into a commercially usable timber. Global timber resources are under pressure due to the increased awareness of environmental issues but notwithstanding this often-debated concern, the use of a waste product to create value and replace existing wood drawn from nature’s forests, has to be a very good outcome.