(783f) Computational Fluid Dynamics Study of Full-Scale Aerobic Bioreactors:  Evaluation of Dynamic Oxygen Distribution, Gas-Liquid Mass Transfer, and Reaction

Humbird, D., DWH Process Consulting
Stickel, J. J., National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Sitaraman, H., National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Sprague, M. A., National Renewable Energy Laboratory
McMillan, J. D., National Renewable Energy Laboratory
If advanced biofuels are to measurably displace fossil fuels in the near term, they will have to operate at levels of scale, efficiency, and margin unprecedented in the current biotech industry. For aerobically-grown products in particular, scale-up is complex and the practical size, cost, and operability of extremely large reactors is not well understood. Put simply, the problem of how to attain fuel-class production scales comes down to cost-effective delivery of oxygen at high mass transfer rates and low capital and operating costs. To that end, very large reactor vessels (>500 m3) are proposed in order to achieve favorable economies of scale. Additionally, techno-economic evaluation indicates that bubble-column reactors are more cost-effective than stirred-tank reactors in many low-viscosity cultures.

In order to advance the design of extremely large aerobic bioreactors, we have performed computational fluid dynamics (CFD) simulations of bubble-column reactors. A multiphase Euler-Euler model is used to explicitly account for the spatial distribution of air (i.e., gas bubbles) in the reactor. Expanding on the existing bioreactor CFD literature (typically focused on the hydrodynamics of bubbly flows), our simulations include interphase mass transfer of oxygen and a simple phenomenological reaction representing the uptake and consumption of dissolved oxygen by submerged cells.

The simulations reproduce the expected flow profiles, with net upward flow in the center of column and downward flow near the wall. At high simulated oxygen uptake rates (OUR), oxygen-depleted regions can be observed in the reactor. By increasing the gas flow to enhance mixing and eliminate depleted areas, a maximum oxygen transfer (OTR) rate is obtained as a function of superficial velocity. These insights regarding minimum superficial velocity and maximum reactor size are incorporated into NRELâ??s larger techno-economic models to supplement standard reactor design equations.