A natural alternative to the controversial production of palm oil is being developed by researchers at the universities of York and Bath, which could mean saving the habitats of endangered species like the orangutan. Joel Flynn reports.
The forests of Sumatra and Borneo host most of the world's orangutans. The great apes are endangered, though - only around 60,000 exist, according to the WWF - and part of the reason for that is palm oil. This substance is taken from oil palm trees, and found everywhere in modern products - from cooking to cosmetics. Burning land to clear it for palm oil production means destroying the orangutan's habitat, whilst causing choking smog that covers much of southeastern Asia almost every October. Researchers at the universities of Bath and York say they have an alternative. It's made using yeast derived from biomass like wheat straw and rapeseed straw left after food production. SOUNDBITE: University Of Bath Lead Researcher On Yeast Project, Dr Christopher Chuck, saying (English): "So it's dispersed in water, so what we do is we then take the yeast out of the water. This is the dried yeast here. We can then explode it open and that releases the oil." The oil the yeast produces has virtually identical qualities to palm oil. By changing environmental conditions or the yeast's strain, the team can direct the oil created toward different applications. SOUNDBITE: University Of Bath Lead Researcher On Yeast Project, Dr Christopher Chuck, saying (English): "So we can use the yeast to produce a palm oil substitute. So it has a biomechanical composition very similar to palm oil and therefore it has the same physical possibilities, so it's as thick as palm oil. We can also direct the yeast towards more rapeseed oil type oil - potential use for biofuels." So far they've only managed to produce palm oil on a laboratory scale. Over the next four years they want to expand that - instead of making two litres of oil, producing 30,000 litres of the stuff. If they're successful, it could give a major boost to the survival prospects of the iconic orangutan.