1. Bunch reception
Fresh fruit arrives from the field as bunches or loose fruit. The fresh fruit is normally emptied into wooden boxes suitable for weighing on a scale so that quantities of fruit arriving at the processing site may be checked. Large installations use weighbridges to weigh materials in trucks.
The quality standard achieved is initially dependent on the quality of bunches arriving at the mill. The mill cannot improve upon this quality but can prevent or minimise further deterioration.
The field factors that affect the composition and final quality of palm oil are genetic, age of the tree, agronomic, environmental, harvesting technique, handling and transport. Many of these factors are beyond the control of a small-scale processor. Perhaps some control may be exercised over harvesting technique as well as post-harvest transport and handling.
2. Threshing (removal of fruit from the bunches)
The fresh fruit bunch consists of fruit embedded in spikelets growing on a main stem. Manual threshing is achieved by cutting the fruit-laden spikelets from the bunch stem with an axe or machete and then separating the fruit from the spikelets by hand. Children and the elderly in the village earn income as casual labourers performing this activity at the factory site.
In a mechanised system a rotating drum or fixed drum equipped with rotary beater bars detach the fruit from the bunch, leaving the spikelets on the stem (Fig. 3).
Most small-scale processors do not have the capacity to generate steam for sterilization. Therefore, the threshed fruits are cooked in water. Whole bunches which include spikelets absorb a lot of water in the cooking process. High-pressure steam is more effective in heating bunches without losing much water. Therefore, most small-scale operations thresh bunches before the fruits are cooked, while high-pressure sterilization systems thresh bunches after heating to loosen the fruits.
Small-scale operators use the bunch waste (empty bunches) as cooking fuel. In larger mills the bunch waste is incinerated and the ash, a rich source of potassium, is returned to the plantation as fertilizer.
3. Sterilization of bunches
Sterilization or cooking means the use of high-temperature wet-heat treatment of loose fruit. Cooking normally uses hot water; sterilization uses pressurized steam. The cooking action serves several purposes.
- Heat treatment destroys oil-splitting enzymes and arrests hydrolysis and autoxidation.
- For large-scale installations, where bunches are cooked whole, the wet heat weakens the fruit stem and makes it easy to remove the fruit from bunches on shaking or tumbling in the threshing machine.
- Heat helps to solidify proteins in which the oil-bearing cells are microscopically dispersed. The protein solidification (coagulation) allows the oil-bearing cells to come together and flow more easily on application of pressure.
- Fruit cooking weakens the pulp structure, softening it and making it easier to detach the fibrous material and its contents during the digestion process. The high heat is enough to partially disrupt the oil-containing cells in the mesocarp and permits oil to be released more readily.
- The moisture introduced by the steam acts chemically to break down gums and resins. The gums and resins cause the oil to foam during frying. Some of the gums and resins are soluble in water. Others can be made soluble in water, when broken down by wet steam (hydrolysis), so that they can be removed during oil clarification. Starches present in the fruit are hydrolyzed and removed in this way.
- When high-pressure steam is used for sterilization, the heat causes the moisture in the nuts to expand. When the pressure is reduced the contraction of the nut leads to the detachment of the kernel from the shell wall, thus loosening the kernels within their shells. The detachment of the kernel from the shell wall greatly facilitates later nut cracking operations. From the foregoing, it is obvious that sterilization (cooking) is one of the most important operations in oil processing, ensuring the success of several other phases.
- However, during sterilization it is important to ensure evacuation of air from the sterilizer. Air not only acts as a barrier to heat transfer, but oil oxidation increases considerably at high temperatures; hence oxidation risks are high during sterilization. Over-sterilization can also lead to poor bleach ability of the resultant oil. Sterilization is also the chief factor responsible for the discolouration of palm kernels, leading to poor bleach ability of the extracted oil and reduction of the protein value of the press cake.
Fig. 3 Bunch thresher (Centre de Formation Technique Steinmetz-Benin)
Fig. 4 Fruit sterilizer (Centre de Formation Technique Steinmetz-Benin)
4. Digestion of the fruit
Digestion is the process of releasing the palm oil in the fruit through the rupture or breaking down of the oil-bearing cells. The digester commonly used consists of a steam-heated cylindrical vessel fitted with a central rotating shaft carrying a number of beater (stirring) arms. Through the action of the rotating beater arms the fruit is pounded. Pounding, or digesting the fruit at high temperature, helps to reduce the viscosity of the oil, destroys the fruits’ outer covering (exocarp), and completes the disruption of the oil cells already begun in the sterilization phase. Unfortunately, for reasons related to cost and maintenance, most small-scale digesters do not have the heat insulation and steam injections that help to maintain their contents at elevated temperatures during this operation.
Contamination from iron is greatest during digestion when the highest rate of metal wear is encountered in the milling process. Iron contamination increases the risk of oil oxidation and the onset of oil rancidity.