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Fast conversion of algae to biocrude

February 5, 2019
AlgaeIndustryMagazine.com

University of Utah chemical engineering assistant professor Swomitra Mohanty, pictured with beakers of algae, is part of a team that has developed a new kind of jet mixer for turning algae into biomass that extracts the lipids with much less energy than the older extraction method. It is a key discovery that now puts this form of energy closer to becoming a viable, cost-effective alternative fuel. Photo: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering

Biofuel experts have long sought a more economically viable way to turn algae into biocrude oil to power vehicles, ships and even jets. University of Utah researchers believe they have found an answer. They have developed an unusually rapid method to deliver cost-effective algal biocrude in large quantities using a specially-designed jet mixer.

Microalgae is an attractive form of biomass that can be used as a sustainable fuel source. But the problem with using algae for biomass has always been the amount of energy it takes to extract the lipids. Under current methods, it takes more energy to turn algae into biocrude than the amount of energy you get back out of it.

A team of University of Utah chemical engineers has developed a new kind of jet mixer that extracts the lipids with much less energy than the older extraction method, a key discovery that the researchers say now puts this form of energy closer to becoming a viable, cost-effective alternative fuel. The new mixer is fast, too, extracting lipids in seconds.

The team’s results were published in a new peer-reviewed journal, Chemical Engineering Science X. The article, “Algal Lipid Extraction Using Confined Impinging Jet Mixers,” can be downloaded here.

“The key piece here is trying to get energy parity. We’re not there yet, but this is a really important step toward accomplishing it,” says Leonard Pease, a co-author of the paper. “We have removed a significant development barrier to make algal biofuel production more efficient and smarter. Our method puts us much closer to creating biofuels energy parity than we were before.”

Right now, in order to extract the oil-rich lipids from the algae, scientists have to pull the water from the algae first, leaving either a slurry or dry powder of the biomass. That is the most energy-intensive part of the process. That residue is then mixed with a solvent where the lipids are separated from the biomass. What’s left is a precursor, the biocrude, used to produce algae-based biofuel. That fuel is then mixed with diesel fuel to power long-haul trucks, tractors and other large diesel-powered machinery. But because it requires so much energy to extract the water from the plants at the beginning of the process, turning algae into biofuel has thus far not been a practical, efficient or economical process.

“There have been many laudable research efforts to advance algal biofuel, but nothing has yet produced a price point capable of attracting commercial development. Our designs may change that equation and put algal biofuel back in play,” says University of Utah chemical engineering assistant professor Swomitra “Bobby” Mohanty, a co-author on the paper. Other co-authors are former U chemical engineering doctoral student Yen-Hsun “Robert” Tseng and U chemical engineering associate professor John McLennan.

The team has created a new mixing extractor, a reactor that shoots jets of the solvent at jets of algae, creating a localized turbulence in which the lipids “jump” a short distance into the stream of solvent. The solvent then is taken out and can be recycled to be used again in the process. “Our designs ensure you don’t have to expend all that energy in drying the algae and are much more rapid than competing technologies,” notes Dr. Mohanty.

This technology could also be applied beyond algae and include a variety of microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, or any microbial-derived oil, says Mohanty.

“This is game-changing,” Dr. Pease says of their work on algae research. “The breakthrough technologies we are creating could drive a revolution in algae and other cell-derived biofuels development. The dream may soon be within reach.”

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