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Palm Oil: for Food and Fuel

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Oil prices have climbed to unprecedented heights, and concerns about the environmental effects of
fossil fuel use are on the rise. Bioenergy appears to offer hope for addressing these concerns while
also providing new opportunities for poor people and farmers in developing countries. Providing
biofuel is clearly effective to reduce the dependence on fossil fuel supplies. Palm oil is known as the
most economical vegetable oil regarding to its oil yield. In term of energy balance, palm oil is also
highly profitable as biodiesel feedstock compared to any other vegetable oils. The increase demand
on biodiesel, mainly for EU market, makes some countries (chiefly Indonesia and Malaysia) position
some of their palm oil to be processed as biodiesel. Regarding the fact that around 20% of global
palm oil is utilized for non food purposes, switching it to biodiesel purpose may not affect significantly
on the food security, particularly the globally vegetable oil supply. However, exploration feedstock
from non edible sources is crucial in order to avoid the competition between food and biofuel.

Key words: bioenergy, biofuel, biodiesel, bioethanol, food security, palm oil

The attention on renewable fuel as a new source of energy is considered rising as the increase
of world petroleum price. Responding the energy crisis in 1973, Brazil pioneered to produce a portion
of its sugar mills to ethanol, and in so recently became the leading producer worldwide. The
enthusiasm and interest on producing and using biofuel is thereafter not only limited to the developed
countries but also in many developing countries. While USA has produced and uses bioethanol since
1980s, many European countries have been producing and using biodiesel since the early 1990s.
Today, more than 20 countries all over the world have focused on producing first generation biofuels
in various capacities, chiefly bioethanol and biodiesel.
The promised benefit of biofuel generates the growing demand of biofuel for various purposes.
Demanding for ethanol and biodiesel derived from grains, vegetable oils, sugar and other crops has
risen sharply. Brazil and the United States are the largest producers of ethanol derived from sugar
cane and corn respectively. The production of bioethanol from these 2 countries are accounting for
about 90% of world production, while European Union, especially France and Germany, is the largest
producer of biodiesel, accounting for 88% of world production (Hazell & Pachauri, 2006). Recently,
few developing countries have sizable biofuel programs. The main players are China, Colombia, India,
and Thailand, while many others are interested in initiating (or have initiated) small pilot programs. In
2001 India launched programme in the production of bioenergy plantation, biodiesel, bioethanol,
hydrogen from biomass (DBT, 2007).
The three aspects of sustainability in biofuel production are environment, economics and
society (Ecosense, 2007). The focus of this article is to review the current trend on global biofuel
concern, the problems as well as its future challenges. As the main feedstock of bioethanol and
biodiesel production comes from food commodities such as sugar cane, maize, palm oil and soybean
oil, information on the commodity’s potential as well as the alternative commodities for biofuel
production is essential. Particular discussion is concentrated on the opportunity of biodiesel derived
from palm oil in accordance with the food security status, especially the globally vegetable oil supply.

Biofuels as renewable energy sources

Biofuels are renewable fuels that are predominantly produced from domestically produced
biomass feed stocks or as a by product from the industrial processing of agricultural or food products,
or from the recovery and reprocessing of products such as cooking and vegetable oil (FAO, 2000).
Biofuels can be divided into two main categories: conventional (first generation) and advanced
(second generation) biofuel. There are significant differences between first and second generation
biofuels or even between biofuels of the same generation. First-generation biofuels are made from
food crop feedstocks while second-generation biofuels are made from agriculture and forestry waste,
such as woodchips and straw (Refuel, 2007). Figure 1 ilustrates the general process of biofuel
production either 1st or 2nd generation.

1st Generation 2nd Generation


Oil crop Sugar & starch Lignocelluloses


Extraction Extraction Hydrolysis Gasification

Plant oil Sugar

Esterification Fermentation

Biodiesel Ethanol Ethanol Green Diesel MeOH FTL DME

Figure 1. Basic process of biofuel production

First-generation biofuels, made from food crops, can offer some CO2 benefits and can help to
improve domestic energy security. The two main types of first-generation biofuel used commercially
are ethanol and biodiesel. Conversely, since the second-generation biofuels are made from non-food
feedstocks, such as waste from agriculture and forestry, they could significantly reduce CO2
production without compete with food crops and some types can offer better engine performance.
When commercialized, the cost of second-generation biofuels has also the potential to be more
comparable with standard petrol and diesel. Used at 100% concentration, second generation biofuels
could reduce well-to-wheels CO2 production by up to 90% (Shell, 2007). However, second generation
biofuel has not been available in significant commercial quantities within 10 years (Refuel, 2007).
It is true that global biofuel contribution is still low in comparison to the fossil fuel consumption.
Total world biofuel consumption was only 8 Mtoe (0.4% of total transport consumption) in 2002, but
expected to more than quadruple by 2030, reaching 36 Mtoe (IEA, 2004). In contrast, the production
of fossil oil reached nearly 3,550 million tones (+ 80 million barrels/day), but projected to decline after
the peak production between 2010 and 2020 with capacity about 100 Mb/day (Langwell, 2002;
Laherrere, 2003) (Figure 2).

Figure 2. World oil production with different scenarios (IEA, 2002)

Nowadays, bioethanol is the world’s main biofuel, which is Brazil and the United States
dominate as the largest producers. In 2004, worldwide production of ethanol was 422 million

hectoliters, of which 36% was in Brazil and 33% in the United Sates. Consumption of ethanol fuel in
the main American, European and Asian markets is expected to double between 2005 and 2010, from
roughly 400 to 800 million hectoliters (Total, 2007). Biodiesel, which until recently was produced
almost solely in the EU, is now gaining a more attention in many countries across the world. The
European Union, especially France and Germany, is the largest producer of biodiesel, accounting for
88% of world production, followed by the United States, which produces 8%. Nevertheless, biogas
comes third and has so far made a breakthrough with total EU25’s production was 4.27 Mtoe in 2004
compared to 3.91 Mtoe in 2003. The EU’s production of biofuels amounted to 2.4 million tones in
2004, approximately 0.8% of EU petrol and diesel consumption (EU, 2006).

Biofuel and environmental issues

The global concern on the environment as well as the fossil fuel shortage plays important role
in the growing of biofuel production. European Union for example, represents to meet its emission
reduction target as agreed under the Kyoto agreement by cut down its overall greenhouse gas
emissions relative to the 1990 level by 8% in the period from 2008 to 2012 (Henke, et al., 2005).
Notably, reducing pollutant emissions is associated with reducing climate changing (global warming)
and thereby is essential in alleviating various human health problems. For that reason, the EU is
pressing its member states to meet their target of increasing their share of biofuels to 5.75% of overall
fuel consumption by 2010 (Directive/2003/30 EC, 2003; Anonim, 2006). In the U.S., EPAct program
(1992) has a significant effect on the development of the biodiesel market by establishing a goal of
replacing 10% of motor fuels with non-petroleum alternatives by 2000 and increasing to 30% by the
year 2010 (EPA, 2002).
Global carbon emission is known to climb rapidly, mainly in developed countries. During 1971-
2001, carbon dioxide emission has risen by 68%. At the beginning of this period, electricity generation
accounted for the majority of the increase. More recently, transport has been the fastest growing
sector in terms of emissions. Fossil fuel shares in overall emissions decreased slightly from 51% to
42%. Fuel switching and the increasing use of non fossil energy sources reduced the CO2 ratio by
almost 9% over the past 30 years (IEA, 2002). Further projections show a continuing increase of
global carbon dioxide emissions by 69% in the year 2030, if no new policies are put in place.
As biofuel contains non petroleum or may be blended at any level with petroleum fuel, it is
sometimes claimed could be the answer to the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. Furthermore,
biofuel has been demonstrated to have significant environmental benefits in terms of decreased
global warming impacts, reduced emissions, and a positive impact on agriculture. Various studies
have estimated that the use of 1 kg of biodiesel leads to the reduction of some 3 kg of CO2 (EPA,
2002). Hence, the use of biodiesel results in a significant reduction in CO2 and CO emission, 65-90%
and 12-485 less than conventional diesel respectively (Table 1). Biodiesel is also extremely low in
sulphur, and has a high lubricity and fast biodegradability. In conclude, biofuel is simple to use,
biodegradable, non-toxic and more environmental friendly (Hazell & Pachauri, 2006).
Table 1. Average biodiesel emissions compared to conventional diesel
B100 B20
Total Unburned Hydrocarbons -67% -20%
Carbon Monoxide -48% -12%
Particulate Matter -47% -12%
NOx +10% +2% to -2%
Sulfates -100% -20%*
PAH (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons) ** -80% -13%
nPAH (nitrated PAH’s)** -90% -50%***
Ozone potential of speciated HC -50% -10%
* Estimated from B100 result
** Average reduction across all compounds measured
*** 2-nitroflourine results were within test method variability
Source (EPA, 2002)

Most of the biodiesel produced today is done with the base catalyzed reaction for several
reasons: 1). low temperature and pressure, 2). yields high conversion (98%) with minimal side
reactions and reaction time, 3). directly converted to biodiesel with no intermediate compounds, and
4). no exotic materials of construction are needed (National Biodiesel Board, 2002). In the transport
sector, it may be effectively used either when blended with fossil diesel fuel or in pure form. Tests
undertaken by motor manufacturers on blends with diesel oil up to 2%, or at 20% and 100% pure
have resulted in guarantees for each type of use (Table 2). In the U.S., there are presently 105
companies that have invested millions of dollars into the development of biodiesel manufacturing
plants and are actively marketing biodiesel. The annual production capacity from these plants is 864
million gallons/ year.
Table 2. Average density and heating value of biodiesel and diesel fuel

Density Energy Difference to

(g/cm3) (Btu/gal) No.2 diesel
No.2 Diesel 0.850 129,500 -
Biodiesel (B100) 0.880 118,296 8.65 %
B20 Blend (B20) 0.856* 127,259* 1.73 %*
B2 Blend (B2) 0.851* 129,276* 0.17 %*
* Calculated Values from those of No. 2 Diesel and Biodiesel (B100)
Source: National Biodiesel Board (2002)

The sustainability of biofuel production

Biodiesel is known as the mono-alkyl esters of fatty acids, produced from vegetable oils such
as rapeseed oil, sunflower seed oil, soybean oil, palm oil and also used frying oils (UFO) or animal
fats. There are three basic routes to biodiesel production from oils and fats: 1) base catalyzed
transesterification of the oil, 2). direct acid catalyzed transesterification of the oil, and 3). conversion of
the oil to its fatty acids and then to biodiesel. In simply, biodiesel is the product obtained when a
vegetable oil or animal fat is chemically reacted with an alcohol to produce fatty acid alkyl esters. A
catalyst such as sodium or potassium hydroxide is required, while glycerol is produced as a co-
product (FAO, 2002).
Bioethanol is biofuel mainly produced by the sugar fermentation process, although it can also
be manufactured by the chemical process of reacting ethylene with steam. The primary feedstock for
bioethanol is sugarcane in Brazil and maize in the United States (EPA, 2002). Nevertheless, EU
production of bioethanol used in 2004 around 1.2 million tones of cereals and 1 million tones of sugar
beet. This represents, respectively 0.4% of the total EU25 cereals and 0.8% of the EU25 of sugar
beet production (IEA, 2002). Whereas in Thailand, bioethanol is produced in small amount derived
from cassava (Green Car Congress, 2007).
Soybean oil is the most popular feedstock for biodiesel in the U.S. and the government
subsidizes on this crop to make the fuel economically attractive to consumers. Biodiesel from
soybeans is sometimes called soydiesel, methyl soyate, or soy methyl esters (SME). In Europe, most
biodiesel is made from rapeseed oil and it is known as rapeseed methyl esters (RME) (University of
Idaho, 2006). Biodiesel can also be made from other feedstocks such as other vegetable oils (corn oil,
cottonseed oil, mustard oil, palm oil, etc.), restaurant waste oils (used frying oils), animal fats (beef
tallow or lard), trap grease (restaurant grease traps, float grease from waste water treatment plants),
Biodiesel has been produced on an industrial scale in the European Union since 1992. Today,
there are approximately 120 plants in the EU producing up to 6,100,000 tones of biodiesel annually.
These plants are mainly located in Germany, Italy, Austria, France and Sweden. In 2004 the total
area used for biofuel crop production was around 1.4 million ha, while in 2005, an increase was
expected to be 1.8 million ha. In keeping with the objective, rapeseed areas devoted to the production
of biofuels should be multiplied by at least six fold by 2010 (INRA, 2006). In Asia, Thailand may allow
importing of palm oil to produce biodiesel due to a shortage of palm oil. To encourage the adoption of
B5, Thailand government is subsidizing the biodiesel blend to a price lower than conventional diesel
(Green Car Congress, 2007).
Currently, about half of the sugar cane in Brazil is allocated to the production of bioethanol. In
2003, the crop yield was 350 million tons/ha. Brazil has an arable farmland of 320 million hectares of
which 53 million are in use today. Only 5.6 million hectares are used for the production of sugar cane.
There are about 400 bioethanol production plants with an overall capacity of currently approximately

17 million m³ per year (Henke, et al., 2005). However, global biofuel production is still relatively minor
and produced in just a few countries (Table 3).
Table 3. The current status of selected countries on biofuel production
Current capacity Target (year)
Country Product Main Feedstock
(Mil m3/year) (Mil m3/year)
Ethanol 16.9 (2004) - Sugar cane
Biodiesel - - Soy, Palm, Tallow
Ethanol 12.9 (2004) - Corn
Biodiesel - - Soy
Biodiesel 1.5 (2004) 10.2 (2010) Rapeseed, palm, used oil
Ethanol 0.4 (2004) 11.4 (2010) Wheat
Japan Ethanol 6 500
China Biodiesel 0.14 1.25 (2006) Used oil
India Ethanol 0.7 - Palm
Ethanol 0.02 0.35 Various
Biodiesel 0.015 0.14 (2007) Palm oil
Ethanol In progress - Corn
Biodiesel 0.068 - Soy
New Zealand Biodiesel In progress - Tallow
Bioethanol - - Cassava
Biodiesel - - Palm oil
Malaysia Biodiesel In progress 0.7 (2007) Palm oil
Indonesia Biodiesel In progress 0.12 (2008) Palm oil
Source: EurObserver (2005); Hale, et. al. (2006); Liu (2006)

Alternative feedstocks for biofuel

Some concerns exist about the sourcing of feed stocks for biofuel, including the impact it may
have on environment, biodiversity and land use as well as competition with food crops. Biofuel feed
stocks may be either “residues” (waste products from other activities) or “purposed crop”. Residues
have negligible production costs, as they are a by-product of other activities, while purpose grown
feed stocks have costs associated with growing and harvesting the crop (Hale, et. al., 2006).
Environmental impact particularly resulted by deforestation for the feedstock plantation is often
questioned as well as the disturbance of the natural biodiversity.
Bioethanol production from renewable resources like fruit and vegetable wastes and other raw
material such as sweet sorghum, molasses, starch, and sawdust is being tried using high yielding
thermotolerant starch. Studies on the production of ethanol from vegetable sources (apple and tomato
waste extracts) using Zymomonas mobilis strains has been initiated. On the other hand, some fungal
strains were found to be promising giving high activities of cellulase (DBT, 2007). Account is also
being taken on the biofuel production from Jatropha curcas, a wild tropical plant native to Central
America. This plant is potential as biofuel feedstock due to its tolerance to be cultivated on non arable
area. Recently, jatropha cand be found in most tropical countries. Industrial scale plantation of
jatropha is being establishing in India and Indonesia (Mulyani et, al., 2006; DBT, 2007). Since
jatropha oil is not edible, producing for biofuel will not affect to the global food security. Conservation
benefit will also be influenced from the cultivation in non productive area as well as reducing the
poverty in the rural area.
Microalgae are known for its content of lipids and fatty acids as membrane components,
storage products, metabolites and sources of energy (DBT, 2007). Algal strains, diatoms, and
cyanobacteria (microalgae) have been found to contain relatively high levels of lipids. These
microalgal strains with highly oil or lipid content are of great interest in the search for a sustainable
feedstock for the production of biodiesel. As could be seen from Table 4, algae contain of lipids/oils
more than any other source of biodiesel (Oliga, 2007). Scenedesmus obliquus, Scenedesmus
dimorphus, Chlamydomonas rheinhardii, Chlorella vulgaris, Spirogyra sp., Euglena gracilis,
Prymnesium parvum, and Porphyridium cruentum are found with significant content of lipid. Among
those, Scenedesmus dimorphus and Prymnesium parvum administer the highest content of lipid (up
to 40%) (Sheehan, et al., 1998).

Table 4. Yield of various plant oils

Crop Oil (Liters/hectare)

Castor 1,413
Sunflower 952
Safflower 779
Palm 5,950
Soybean 446
Coconut 2,689
Algae 10,0000
Source: (Oliga, 2007).

Unused frying oil (UFO) is becoming common to be processed for biodiesel, particularly in
China. Historically, this waste had two purposes i.e. discharged into local sewage systems or covertly
reused in substandard kitchens that may contribute to frequent food-poisoning incidents. China’s
biodiesel production began in 2001 with the salad oil wastes used as feedstock and thereby expanded
to use animal fats and wild oilseed plants. By 2004, only 3 companies engaged in the fuel’s
production, with a total capacity of 40,000 tons/year, while in 2005, China manufactured 110,000–
120,000 tons of biodiesel fuel (Liu, 2006). Table 5 shows examples of feed stocks for bioethanol and
biodiesel production.
Table 5. Common feed stock for biofuel production
Bioethanol Biodiesel
Purposed crop: Purposed crop:
Crops (maize, sugar cane, sugar beet, wheat, Oilseeds (rapeseed, soya, sunflower, palm)
cassava) Jatropha curcas
Short rotation forestry (salix, eucalyptus) Algae (experimental scale)
Switchgrass, Miscanthus
By product: By product:
Whey Tallow
Crop residues (fruits, vegetables) Recycled cooking oil
Forestry residues

Palm oil based biodiesel and food security

Palm is known as the most productive crop in producing vegetable oil, compared to any other
vegetable oils (Table 4). This fact is strongly beneficial for palm oil to position itself on the biofuel
market. The production of vegetable oil in the world is estimated at 26.9 billion gallons (Table 6),
which is dominated by soybean oil (32.71%) and palm oil (27.51). According to the projection by FAO,
global vegetable oil demand, supply and trade are projected to rise by around 30% between today
and the year 2015 (Thoenes, 2006). Today, Indonesia and Malaysia dominate the global oil palm
supply with share more than 80%, both in production and trade (Table 7). The total area of palm
plantation in Malaysia is 4.05 million ha (2005), accounting 60% of total agriculture. With the 14.95
million ton oil production/year, Malaysian is dominating 0% of world palm oil production of which 90%
is subjected for export market (Chai, 2007). On the other hand, Indonesia is known as the largest
palm oil plantation for than 5.5 million ha (2005). With the 13 million oil production, Indonesia
contributes as the second producer palm oil and projected to lead after 2010 (Liwang, 2006).
Table 6. World Vegetable Oil Production 2002/2003
Crop Volume (Billion Gallons) %
Soybean 8.8 32.71
Palm 7.4 27.51
Sunflower 2.4 8.9
Rapeseed 3.3 12.26
Cottonseed 1.0 0.37
Peanut 1.3 4.8

Coconut 0.95 3.5
Olive 0.69 2.6
Palm Kernel 0.93 3.4
Total 26.9
Source: Thoenes (2006)

Table 7. Development of world palm oil production

1969 2001 2004
(000 tons) % (000 tons) % (000 tons) %
Malaysia 370 32.74 11,660 48.26 13,974 46.00
Indonesia 190 16.82 8,300 34.36 12,080 39.00
Nigeria 50 4.42 750 3.11 790 3.00
Colombia 30 2.66 560 2.32 632 2.00
Thailand NA - 530 2.19 668 2.00
Congo 230 20.35 96 0.40 NA -
Others 260 23.01 2,263 9.36 NA -
Total 1,130 100.00 24,159 100.00 > 30,000 100.00
Source: Thoenes (2006)
There are a number of factors which explain the remarkable expansion of palm oil during the
past decades: (1) palm oil yields, as measured in terms of oil produced per ha/year by far exceed in
comparison to those of other vegetable oils; (2) palm oil production costs are low when compared to
other oil crops; (3) the oil palm industry seems to have benefited from a favorable economic
environment and policy setting; (4) the high level of market concentration. Today palm oil is consumed
world-wide as the vegetable oil with the highest level of market penetration. EU, China, India,
Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan are the main consumer of palm oil. This fact seems affected by the
price of palm oil which known as the cheapest relatively to any other vegetable oils (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Global price of selected vegetavle oil (Thoenes, 2006)

With regard to the trend of declining of global palm oil price, the new demand for vegetable oil
for biodiesel production has had a major influence on the recent strengthening of prices. In the mid of
2005, the average crude palm oil (CPO) price fell 13.4% because of the high stock. Although
strengthening along with the other oils, palm oil has remained the lowest priced vegetable oil. Initially,
palm oil can be burned directly as fuel, used as raw material for biodiesel production or employed in
various intermediary forms (Da Costa & Lora, 2007). Studies showed that biodiesel production
derived from palm oil has the highest energy balance, compared to rapeseed, corn, beetroot and
castor (Table 8). Therefore, producing biodiesel from palm oil is supposed more profitable in
comparison to the recent palm oil market.

Table 8. Energy balance of biofuel production from different feed stocks

Feed stock Energy balance Productivity (ton/ha) Country

EU biodiesel 3.2 - 3.4 n.a. EU
Rapeseed 2.41 - 5.23 3 Lithuania
Maize & beetroot 1.7 - 3.0 Germany
Castor 2.0 - 2.9 1.8 Brazil
Palm 6.0 - 8.0 Brazil
Source: Da Costa & Lora, (2007)
Commercial production of biodiesel from palm oil has started or is about to start in a number of
countries in Asia, led by Malaysia and Indonesia, while in South America by Brazil and Colombia
(Avendano, 2007). For this reason, Malaysia and Indonesia have put aside of 40% palm oil as
biodiesel (Green Car Congress, 2006). On the other hand, in European Union, biofuel production
derived from palm oil is expected as the promised biofuel product to fulfill European market. Referring
to the Directive/2003/30 EC-2003, market demand of biodiesel for EU is increasing gradually from 5.8
in 2007 to 10.2 Mtoe by 2010.
It is noticed that around 20% of palm oil is know not utilized for food production. Soap and
detergent industry, cosmetic, printing and plastic industries as well as oil industry are among the
areas take advantages from the low price of global palm oil prices. Therefore, allocating small amount
of palm oil for biofuel may not affect the food security of palm oil supply (Liwang, 2006). Conversely,
allocating such particular amount of palm oil to produce biodiesel will benefit in establishing the
competitiveness of palm oil price in the global market. Indirect impact of this policy is reducing poverty
in rural area due to the availability of job opportunity in producing palm oil as well as in processing

Biofuel production is essential due to the trend of increasing global oil price as a result of
increasing demand and the impacts of some international crisis. Providing biofuel is clearly effective to
reduce the dependence on imported oil and extend fossil fuel supplies. As more environmentally
friendly alternative to petrodiesel, biodiesel is a hope to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
such as CO2, as well as CO, PM and HC emissions. Able to be used in existing diesel engines with
proper care and attention, biodiesel is also compatible with the existing fuel distribution infrastructure.
Furthermore, biofuel production is potential to help stimulate agricultural markets and reduce poverty
in rural areas by providing jobs for the poor. In comparison to bioethanol, global biodiesel production
is still very low.
Palm oil is known as the most economically vegetable oil regarding its oil yield/ha/year. In term
of energy balance, palm oil is also highly profitable as biodiesel feedstock compared to any other
vegetable oils. The trend of stagnation (or even declining) of palm oil price and the increase demand
on palm biodiesel oil, chiefly for EU market, make some countries (Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil and
Colombia) position some of their palm oil production to be allocated for biodiesel. Regarding the fact
that around 20% of global palm oil is utilized for non food purposes, switching it to biodiesel purposes
may not affect significantly on the food security, particularly the globally vegetable oil supply. However,
exploration feedstock from non edible sources is crucial in order to avoid the competition between
food and biofuel.

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Secretary Oils, Fats and Sago Division. Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities,

- Researcher at Agency for Marine & Fisheries Research, Jakarta
- European MSc Student on Food Science, Technology & Nutrition, Gent-Belgium