SINGAPORE- Every year 41 million tonnes of empty palm husks pile up in plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, by far the world's two largest producers of palm oil.
Much of this waste is either burnt - contributing to air pollution and the haze - or simply left to mulch on the ground.
But Singapore scientists have found a way to make use of the biomass, known as empty fruit bunch, in factories.
They identified a strain of bacteria that converts it into lactic acid, an industrially important chemical used to make plastics.
At present, lactic acid is made in industrial quantities by processing and fermenting starchy materials such as corn starch.
"There is a huge market for (lactic acid)," said lead scientist Wu Jinchuan from the Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences (Ices), part of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).
"It needs large amounts of corn starch, which could lead to pressures on food supplies or feedstock for animals."
Dr Wu believes that finding a viable way to use this palm oil waste in large-scale production of lactic acid could have two benefits: Removing a contributor to the haze and reducing the need to use corn starch.