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Harvest biofuel algae with microbubbles

U. SHEFFIELD (UK) — Thanks to microbubble technology, harvesting algae for use as a biofuel could become easier and more affordable.

The technique, developed at the University of Sheffield, builds on previous research in which microbubbles were used to improve the way algae is cultivated. Previously, there has been no cost-effective method of harvesting and removing the water from the algae for it to be processed effectively.

Algae produce an oil that can be processed to create a useful biofuel. Biofuels, made from plant material, are considered an important alternative to fossil fuels and algae, in particular, has the potential to be a very efficient biofuel producer.

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Now, a team led by Professor Will Zimmerman in the department of chemical and biological engineering believe they have solved the problem. Their findings are published in the journal Biotechnology and Bioengineering.

They have developed an inexpensive way of producing microbubbles that can float algae particles to the surface of the water, making harvesting easier, and saving biofuel-producing companies time and money.

“We thought we had solved the major barrier to biofuel companies processing algae to use as fuel when we used microbubbles to grow the algae more densely,” explains Zimmerman.

“It turned out, however, that algae biofuels still couldn’t be produced economically, because of the difficulty in harvesting and dewatering the algae. We had to develop a solution to this problem and once again, microbubbles provided a solution.”

Microbubbles have been used for flotation before: water purification companies use the process to float out impurities, but it hasn’t been done in this context, partly because previous methods have been very expensive. The system developed by Zimmerman’s team uses up to 1000 times less energy to produce the microbubbles and, in addition, the cost of installing the microbubble system is predicted to be much less than existing flotation systems.

The next step in the project is to develop a pilot plant to test the system at an industrial scale. Zimmerman is already working with Tata Steel at their site in Scunthorpe, England using carbon dioxide from their flue-gas stacks. He plans to continue this partnership to test the new system.

“Professor Zimmerman’s microbubble-based technologies are exactly the kind of step-change innovations that we are seeking as a means to address our emissions in the longer term, and we are delighted to have the opportunity to extend our relationship with Will and his team in the next phase of this pioneering research,” says Bruce Adderley, manager of climate change breakthrough technology.

The University of Sheffield’s Knowledge Transfer Account, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, supported the research, as did the Royal Society Innovation Award 2010, and the Concept Fund of Yorkshire Forward.

More news from the University of Sheffield: www.shef.ac.uk/mediacentre/

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