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Review and experimental study on pyrolysis and hydrothermal liquefaction of microalgae for biofuel production

Chiaramonti, David, Prussi, Matteo, Buffi, Marco, Rizzo, Andrea Maria, Pari, Luigi
Applied energy 2017 v.185 pp. 963-972
algal oils, aviation, biodiesel, biorefining, chemical engineering, coproducts, energy, esterification, esters, ethanol, fatty acids, feedstocks, fuel production, hydrothermal liquefaction, lignocellulose, liquids, microalgae, pyrolysis, road transportation, tall oil, vegetable oil
Advanced Biofuels steadily developed during recent year, with several highly innovative processes and technologies explored at various scales: among these, lignocellulosic ethanol and CTO (Crude Tall Oil)-biofuel technologies already achieved early-commercial status, while hydrotreating of vegetable oils is today fully commercial, with almost 3.5Mt/y installed capacity worldwide. In this context, microalgae grown in salt-water and arid areas represent a promising sustainable chain for advanced biofuel production but, at the same time, they also represent a considerable challenge. Processing microalgae in an economic way into a viable and sustainable liquid biofuel (a low-cost mass-product) is not trivial. So far, the most studied microalgae-based biofuel chain is composed by microorganism cultivation, lipid accumulation, oil extraction, co-product valorization, and algae oil conversion through conventional esterification into Fatty Acids Methyl Esters (FAME), i.e. Biodiesel, or Hydrotreated Esters and Fatty Acids (HEFA), the latter representing a very high quality drop-in biofuel (suitable either for road transport or for aviation). However, extracting the algae oil at low cost and industrial scale is not yet a mature process, and there is not yet industrial production of algae-biofuel from these two lipid-based chains. Another option can however be considered: processing the algae through dedicated thermochemical reactors into advanced biofuels, thus approaching the downstream processing of algae in a completely different way than separation. The present work examines the possible routes for thermochemical conversion of microalgae into liquid biofuels, distinguishing between dry-processes (namely Pyrolysis, PO) and wet-processes (near critical-water HydroThermal Liquefaction, HTL). A literature review on algae-HTL was carried out, distinguishing between batch and continuous experiments, and compared to original results from algae pyrolysis. In particular, pyrolysis was carried out on both starved (lipid-accumulated) and non-starved microalgae. Typical composition of major products is given for both PO and HTL, comparing the main characteristic of the products.Major engineering advantages and challenges in thermochemical conversion of algae into liquid biofuels were identified and discussed for both processes, in view of the production of a transport biofuel and the full exploitation of this renewable feedstock in energy and biorefinery complexes.