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Botany of the ages and ancient treasure meet state-of-the-art technology at Curtin Malaysia

Miri – 28 November 2018 - The Pilot Plant Facility at Curtin University Malaysia (Curtin Malaysia) has begun to explore the potential of extracts from a variety of natural produce, some indigenous to Sarawak, using a RM4.2 million pilot-scale Supercritical Fluid Extraction (SFE) system.

Researchers at the RM60 million state-of-the-art Facility are establishing protocols for pilot-scale supercritical fluid extraction of oil and fat from dabai (Canarium odotophyllum Miq.), as well as the highest grade of oil from frankincense (Boswellia sacra) resin.

Substantial research has gone into the unique properties of dabai given that the Sarawak government is keen to promote its commercialisation. Its significance to Sarawak is so great that it has been granted Geographical Indication (GI) as an original, indigenous product of Sarawak by the Intellectual Property Corporation of Malaysia (MyIPO).

Professor Clem Kuek, Dean of Research and Development (R&D) and Director of the Curtin Malaysia Research Institute (CMRI), said that the rationale for investing R&D time at the Pilot Plant Facility on dabai is that it is of potential commercial interest to the pharmaceutical and nutraceutical industries because of its high content of antioxidants. Curtin Malaysia’s initial foray into dabai R&D was in collaboration with Borneo Specialty Fruit Sdn. Bhd.

Frankincense is an aromatic resin obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia, particularly Boswellia sacra, andhas been used for centuries in Middle Eastern, African and Asian folk medicine. Its increasing rarity makes it a high-value ingredient for perfumery and aromatherapy.

Frankincense oil is traditionally extracted via steam distillation, and there is very little experience worldwide on extraction via SFE. Since the SFE system at the Pilot Plant Facility is one of only three pilot-scale systems in Malaysia, the opportunity was taken to develop leading expertise for a high-value product. The Facility uses high grade frankincense resin imported from Oman as its raw material.

The SFE system, which is capable of producing pilot-scale quantities of defined raw materials such as resins, fats and oils for sale and further processing elsewhere, was designed and fabricated by NATEX Prozesstechnologie GsmH in Austria and installed at the Pilot Plant Facility in January last year.

SFE uses liquid carbon dioxide under high pressure to extract the raw materials. After extraction, pressure is released and the carbon dioxide returns to a gaseous state, leaving only the extract. The alternative to SFE is often solvent extraction which has the disadvantage of residual solvents which may be toxic remaining with the extract. Thus, SFE is preferred for food and pharmaceutical applications.

Professor Kuek said SFE is a relatively new concept in Malaysia although the science behind it is fairly well established. There are presently only two other operating pilot-scale plants of the same standard in Malaysia, which are also government-owned and sited at universities.

Other plans for the SFE system at the Pilot Plant Facility include supercritical fluid extraction of oleoresins from Sarawak Black Pepper, which is world renowned for its high quality and unique flavour profile. The oleoresins will be supplied to the Malaysian Pepper Board which will be responsible for developing a market for them.

He added that another plant from which essential oils for perfumeries can be extracted using SME is gaharu (Aquilaria malaccensis), a plant widely found in Sarawak. Gaharu oil is one of the most expensive oils used in perfumery and there are now fairly large areas of gaharu plantations in Sarawak, including in the Baram region near Miri.

The Pilot Plant Facility is currently collaborating with a small local entrepreneurship, Borneo Rainforest Vanilla Company, on using SFE as an alternative to the traditional distillation method to extract gaharu oil.

The Pilot Plant Facility was developed by Sarawak’s Ministry of Industrial and Entrepreneur Development with Curtin Malaysia and is being operated by the latter on behalf of the Sarawak State Government. In the operational phase, the Facility will be managed by the Sarawak Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Research via the Sarawak Research and Development Council.

The Facility is designed to play a central role in the valorisation of materials from biodiversity (plants and microorganisms) and bio‐based sectors (horticulture, agriculture, and aquaculture) in the bioeconomy of Sarawak.

It has three main capabilities: pilot scale bioprocessing such as the production of microbial biomass and fine chemicals, pilot scale phytoprocessing to extract valuable products from plant materials, and materials analysis. It is also tasked with being an incubator for fledgling enterprises in the bioeconomy.

Its laboratory facilities include a Sample Prep Lab, Fermentation Lab, Analytical Lab, Product Formulation Lab, and three Multipurpose Labs. The Facility also houses incubator office space, lecture and meeting rooms.

“The Pilot Plant Facility will be a place for both in-house and contract R&D which will be critical to take the work by Sarawak agencies and industries from benchtop scale achievements to the larger scale which would be necessary for commercialisation,” remarked Professor Kuek. 

He said the Pilot Plant Facility operates on a scale between bench and industrial scale, using technologies and pilot-scale machinery that replicate what industries would use on an industrial scale. The data they produce can be scaled up and extrapolated to estimate outcomes at full scale.

“Pilot planting is essentially demonstrating proof of concept, and quantitative analysis in a manner which would be commercially meaningful, for example, on a basis that accurately reflects costings on an industrial scale,” said Professor Kuek.

He added there remains a large potential in Sarawak for the commercialisation of products from its rich biodiversity. It has fauna and flora that are different from other regions of the country and world, a burgeoning agricultural sector and largely untapped village orchards planting a wide variety of indigenous crops. These are all potential sources of raw materials which can developed into commercial products.

Indigenous plants have long been exploited by the native people of Sarawak, who have traditional knowledge of their nutritional and medicinal value and flavour. Many of these characteristics have been explored under laboratory conditions but without pilot planting it would be difficult to convince industries to take on the commercial risk of making products based on these results because of the lack of commercially relevant processing data. Thus, the government’s investment in a pilot plant facility can be seen as a critical step in developing the State’s bioeconomy.   

Further research and processes planned for the Pilot Plant Facility in the immediate future include kilogramme quantities of extracts from Brucea javanica, Phaleria macrocarpa, Moringa oleifera, and Zingiber officinale to be used in nutraceuticals.

The following videos are available for viewing: The Pilot Plant Facility (www.youtu.beo9RmB2gd38M); SFE Extraction of Dabai Oil (youtu.be/8WyhGFobvG0), SFE Extraction of Frankincense (youtu.be/3FGY1hB7RC4). More Pilot Plant Facility videos can be found at: www.youtube.com/channel/UC3U-p-3zSkCs61DvPzqsg2g/videos.

For more information on Curtin Malaysia, visit its website (www.curtin.edu.my), its Facebook page (CurtinMalaysia), Twitter profile (curtinmalaysia), Google+ page (Curtin Malaysia), Instagram (curtinmalaysia), YouTube channel (Curtin Malaysia) or LinkedIn page (Curtin Malaysia).


SFE extraction in progress.

Frankincense oil extracted via SFE.


The state-of-the-art Pilot Plant Facility at Curtin Malaysia.


From the bench to industry: The intermediary role of pilot plants.