Date of Award:

Spring 2014

Document Type:


Degree Name:

Master of Science (MS)


Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering


Jason Quinn


Microalgae have many desirable attributes as a renewable energy recourse. These include use of poor quality land, high yields, and it is not a food recourse. This research focusses on the energetic and environmental impact of processing microalgae into a renewable diesel. Two thermochemical bio-oil recovery processes are analyzed, pyrolysis and hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL). System boundaries include microalgae growth, dewatering, thermochemical bio-oil recovery, bio-oil stabilization, conversion to renewable diesel, and transportation to the pump. Two system models were developed, a small-scale experimental and an industrial-scale. The small-scale system model is based on experimental data and literature. The industrial-scale system model leverages the small scale system model with scaling and optimization to represent an industrial-scaled process. The HTL and pyrolysis pathways were evaluated based on net energy ratio (NER), defined here as energy consumed over energy produced, and global warming potential (GWP). NER results for biofuel production through the industrial-scaled HTL pathway were determined to be 1.23 with corresponding greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of -11.4 g CO2 eq (MJ renewable diesel)-1. Biofuel production through the industrial-scaled pyrolysis pathway gives a NER of 2.27 and GHG emissions of 210 g CO2 eq (MJ renewable diesel)-1. For reference, conventional diesel has an NER of 0.2 and GHG emissions of 18.9 g CO2 eq MJ-1 with a similar system boundary. The large NER and GHG emissions associated with the pyrolysis pathway are attributed to feedstock drying requirements and combustion of co-products to improve system energetics. Process energetics with HTL and pyrolysis are not currently favorable for an industrial scaled system. However, processing of microalgae to biofuel with bio-oil recovery through HTL does produce a favorable environmental impact and a NER which is close to the breakeven point of one.