Alternative Water Resources Prize

Dr. Abdul Latif Ahmad Dr. Abdul Latif Ahmad (Universiti Sains, Malaysia)

Water shortages, deterioration of water quality, and environmental constraints, have led to an increased interest of recovering and recycling water in many parts of the world. In February 2002, the Singaporean government started to reclaim water from the sewage water for drinking and general use instead of buying from other sources. According to the News Straits Times dated 19 March 2002, Malaysia has never seen a smooth flow of water for even a week although Malaysia is a tropical country having ample rainfall. The present situation that has required water rationing is a case in point.

It is not entirely due to drought that there is a short supply of water. Urbanization and pollution are major reasons for water stress. Although water is important for development, ungoverned development has, in turn, deteriorated the quality of water.

In the past forty years, palm oil has proven to be the most important commodity of Malaysia. Malaysia is one of the world’s largest producer and exporter of palm oil. Malaysia currently accounts for 48% of world palm oil production and 58% of world export. However, the rapid growth of the palm oil industry in Malaysia has caused serious water pollution of the country's rivers. In year 2005, 14.96 million tones of crude palm oil (CPO) had been produced that resulted in 44.88 million tones of Palm Oil Mill Effluent (POME). With these statistics, the palm oil mill industry in Malaysia is identified as the industry that produces the ever largest pollution load into the rivers of Malaysia.

POME is a thick brownish viscous liquid waste which is non-toxic but has an unpleasant odor. It is predominantly organic in nature and identified as one of the world most polluting wastewater. POME has the Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD) reading of 50000 ppm which is ten times higher than that the COD reading of pulp and paper wastewater. Taking the statistic of year 2005, for 44.88 million tones of POME produced, the amount of BOD produced is 1.122 million tones which is equivalent to the waste generated by 61,479,500 citizens of the country (assuming each citizen produce 18.25 kg of BOD every year). Currently, the majority of palm oil mills have adopted conventional biological treatment of anaerobic or facultative digestion which needs large treatment area (2-3 football fields) and long treatment periods (80-120 days). However, not all of the palm oil mills are meeting the Malaysian Department of Environment (DOE) standards of pollution control under the Environmental Quality Act (1974). The final discharge always has high turbidity and color which definitely damage the delicate marine ecosystem and leave the marine ecosystem in the rivers and the fishery based economy unprotected.

Facing the problems of water shortages and deterioration of water quality, the needs of environment conservation in order to ensure continuous clean supply of raw water for the future generation are indeed very important. On the other hand, the palm oil is the most important commodity of Malaysia to sustain the development of the country. At the same time, the palm oil mill industry in Malaysia is the industry that produces the ever largest pollution load into the rivers of Malaysia. In order to prevent water pollution caused by the POME discharge without jeopardizing the continuous growth of palm oil as the most important commodity of Malaysia, a clean technology which is environmentally viable has to be invented.

The goal in the current research invention is to introduce a POME treatment method which is the most cost effective invention and economic method for treating  POME with Zero Discharge Approach. The finding from this research shows that the claimed water from POME using the current treatment system can be enhanced to become drinking water which meets the United State Environment Protection Agency (USEPA) drinking water standard. Results also prove that the sludge generated can be recovered as high grade organic fertilizer. This treatment system is the first and only one ever done in the world which proves to have numerous advantages compared to the conventional treatment method (biological based treatment system).

The current research invention is an innovative, novel technology which offers abundant of advantages and positive impact to the public as listed below:

1. This research is the novel POME treatment method using membrane separation technology coupled with chemical physical pretreatment; the green technology which is the most cost effective invention and economic method in treating the POME with Zero Discharge Approach.

2. The chemical pretreatment is unique and innovative as this is the first time ever cationic polymer is used as coagulant to replace conventional hydrolysable metal cations (e.g. Alum, PAC and Ferric Chloride) to produce metal free sludge. The dried sludge can then be readily used as high grade organic fertilizer.

3. The new idea of combining both cationic and anionic polymers without the need of pH adjustment in chemical pretreatment to eliminate the usage of metal base coagulants creates a breakthrough in conventional chemical pretreatment. This has significantly increase the commercialization potential as the use of polymers has significantly reduce the chemical pretreatment cost by 10 times compared to the conventional metal base coagulant.

4. Current invention has successfully applied membrane separation system in treating the most polluting wastewater (POME) compared to previous work where it is only applied in pulp and paper wastewater treatment. Thus, the usage of membrane system in wastewater treatment has been greatly explored.

5. Current invention allows recycling and reclaiming 85% of the water from POME which is crystal clear water complying with the USEPA drinking water standard and can be recycled back to the mill’s process stream as boiler feed water.

6. Membrane system offers short treatment time with consistent treatment efficiency, small treatment area, compact system with fully automation and high safety level compared to the conventional ponding and open ditch system. With this feature, the current system can easily achieve the ISO 14000 standard.

7. The conventional biological treatment system often received complains on flies and odour which create nuisance to the public. Besides, the treated effluent still has a high turbidity and brownish in colour compared to crystal clear produced using our proposed technology. Therefore, the introduction of this treatment system is able to solve the above mention problems that benefit the public, workers of the mills as well as mill’s owner.

8. The conventional biological treatment system that being applied requires proper maintenance and monitoring as the processes rely solely on microorganisms to break down the pollutants. Besides, it also generates vast amount of biogas such as methane, carbon dioxide and trace amount of hydrogen sulphide where these gases are corrosive and odorous. Thus by introducing the membrane treatment system, the generation of corrosive and odorous gasses will be eliminated.

9. There are still some mills which have failed to comply with the Malaysian Department of Environment’s standard discharge limit even though they have applied biological treatment system. High content of suspended solids and organic matters in the effluent discharge can cause severe pollution of waterways due to oxygen-depletion and other related effects. By applying the membrane treatment system, it is not only capable in treating POME to comply with the standard discharge limit, but the treated water can be recycled for mill’s operation which means cost saving in mills operation.

10. The introduced membrane treatment system is applying a ‘Zero Discharge’ concept, which is more environmental friendly and has high commercial value of its technology as well as the treated products. The treated crystal clear water can be recycled back to its process stream and the sludge generated can be commercialize after converted to high grade organic fertilizer. Thus, the process cost is greatly reduced.

This invention has eliminated the ever largest pollution load into the rivers of Malaysia and this has solved the most severe water pollution problem in Malaysia. Besides, current cost effective invention had greatly encourage the water reuse and recycle with innovative-creative ideas and technology.

This project has been classified as of national interest and is the first of its kind in the world. This recognition is given due to its ability to win many gold medals at Malaysia as well as international level research exhibition.

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