Biomass-to-biocrude on a chip via hydrothermal liquefaction of algae†
Hydrothermal liquefaction uses high temperatures and pressures to break organic compounds into smaller fractions, and is considered the most promising method to convert wet microalgae feedstock to biofuel. Although, hydrothermal liquefaction of microalgae has received much attention, the specific roles of temperature, pressure, heating rate and reaction time remain unclear. We present a microfluidic screening platform to precisely control and observe reaction conditions at high temperature and pressure. In situ observation using fluorescence enables direct, real-time monitoring of this process. A strong shift in the fluorescence signature from the algal slurry at 675 nm (chlorophyll peak) to a post-HTL stream at 510 nm is observed for reaction temperatures at 260 °C, 280 °C, 300 °C and 320 °C (P = 12 MPa), and occurs over a timescale on the order of 10 min. Biocrude formation and separation from the aqueous phase into immiscible droplets is directly observed and occurs over the same timescale. The higher heating values for the sample are observed to increase over shorter timescales on the order of minutes. After only 1 minute at 300 °C, the higher heating value increases from an initial value of 21.97 MJ kg−1 to 33.63 MJ kg−1. The microfluidic platform provides unprecedented control and insight into this otherwise opaque process, with resolution that will guide the design of large scale reactors and processes.