Sandalwood oil distilling process in use since ancient times finally gets an upgrade

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The world’s largest sandalwood processor is now home to the first continuous steam distillery for the essential oil after retiring a method “basically the same” as one used for thousands of years.

Sandalwood oil is a key ingredient in almost half the world’s perfumes and colognes and can sell for $300,000 a tonne.

The six-metre-high stills were commissioned by Quintis for its Mount Romance facility near Albany.

“Essential oil distillation is a process which uses a lot of energy and water,” chief executive Richard Henfrey said.

“[Batch steam distilling] was basically the same process that’s been used to distill essential oils from plants for thousands of years,” Mr Henfrey said.

Batch distilling sandalwood oil takes nine days and requires the copper stills be completely emptied, cleaned and reheated for each batch of chips.

In the new process patented by Quintis, woodchips are continuously fed into a network of stills that produce oil in the space of a day and use about 75 per cent less energy and water.

“Making a batch process into a continuous one isn’t new in manufacturing,” Mr Hendrey said.

A large distilling machine in a shed.A large distilling machine in a shed.
The three-stage continuous distillation machine at Mount Romance.(Supplied: Quintis)

Guaranteed growth

Plantations of Indian sandalwood have been grown in the Kimberley for 20 years.

Because the plant takes 15 years to mature, Quintis has had plenty of time to prepare for the expansion of its plantation harvest, which threatened to overwhelm the batch processing system.

“Our harvest is doubling this year and will double again next year,” Mr Henfrey said.

The expansion led to an investigation into new distillation methods seven years ago.

Eventually, with $500,000 of WA state funding, the investment was realised in the commissioning of the new stills.

“Its a fabulous example of how a strategic investment can value-add to an agricultural product,” WA agriculture minister Alannah MacTiernan said.

Three men with hard hats posing around a tree feller.Three men with hard hats posing around a tree feller.
Richard Henfrey (left) with WA regional manager Troy Sawyer (right) at the Packsaddle sandalwood plantation.(ABC Kimberley: Courtney Fowler)

Sandalwood sustainability

Despite having its sandalwood plantations in the far north of Western Australia, Quintis developed and installed the new stills at its processing facility near Albany, 3,500 kilometres away.

“Albany is the largest sandalwood distillation facility in the world and it’s where the skills and the footprint are,” Mr Henfrey said.

Transport and processing efficiency are not the only questions being asked about the industry’s sustainability.

Research published this month suggests native Australian sandalwood is on a path to extinction at the present rate of wild harvest.

Quintis processes both plantation-grown Indian sandalwood and wild-harvested Australian sandalwood.

Mr Henfrey said plantations “absolutely” can replace wild-harvested sandalwood in time, but believed both forms of harvesting were sustainable in Australia.

“The story of Indian sandalwood is actually quite instructive,” he said.

“The Indian species in India was overexploited to the point of extinction and we’ve effectively rescued the species by growing it in plantations.

“My view is there will be plantation and wild sandalwood harvested in Australia for the foreseeable future.”