Thermo-economic and environmental model of microalgae-to-SNG conversion process through hydrothermal gasification
Due to its high photosynthesis conversion efficiency, microalgae are currently considered as a serious feedstock for next-generation biofuels production. One possible conversion process is the production of synthetic natural gas (SNG) through catalytic hydrothermal gasification which uses a supercritical water-processing for the gasification and has the advantage to avoid drying of the biomass. The whole system includes four steps of production: microalgae cultivation, dewatering, gasification and product separation. In this paper the SNG production from microalgae is analyzed considering algal biomass cultivation system with open-ponds technology. To do so, a mathematical model based on mass and energy balances has been developed in order to represent microalgae growth process, and regarding culture temperature, solar-radiation incidence, CO2 and nutrients supply. The complete physical model of the biomass conversion system is developed including the dewatering system with settling ponds and centrifuges, catalytic hydrothermal gasification with salt separation unit and the SNG separation and purification system. An economic model is carried out for investment and operation cost of the process, from the biomass cultivation to the final product, including possibilities of nutrients, CO2 and water recovery. Finally, the environmental impact regarding the CO2 emission of this process and the avoided emission from the replacement of fossil natural gas is estimated in a complete life cycle analysis. A multi-objective optimization methodology is used to find the trade-off between the total cost of the system and the environmental impact that can be linked with the equipment size and the energy conversion efficiency.