Gas-Liquid Flow Modeling for Renewable Fuels Production

Research output: NRELPresentation


Aerobic/anaerobic and gas fermentation pathways have emerged as promising new technologies for the generation of renewable fuels/chemicals from biomass derived sugars, and mixtures of greenhouse/energy rich gas streams (CO2/CH4/H2/CO) via microbial action. Example pathways include sugars-to-ethanol conversion, biomethanation (CO2/H2 to CH4), biogas upgrading, CO fermentation and wet-waste conversion. Gas and liquid phase transport, mass-transfer, and mixing physics at large length scales can significantly affect microbial conversion rates, particularly when the microbial reaction requires a narrow set of conditions. These phenomena are difficult to study in small-scale bench-top reactors that are typically well-mixed. Predictive computational fluid dynamics (CFD) based simulations can therefore aid in the scale-up, design and optimization of these reactors. This work presents multiphase Euler-Euler CFD simulations of at-scale (~500 m3) bioreactors. Our mathematical model treats the gas and liquid as interpenetrating phases. This approach reduces the computational complexity of tracking individual gas bubbles that are several orders of magnitude smaller than reactor dimensions. We solve the Reynolds averaged Navier-Stokes (RANS) multiphase equations that account for phase and chemical species transport, interphase mass and momentum transfer and uses a phenomenological model for gas uptake by microbes. We use a customized solver derived from open-source CFD toolbox, OpenFOAM [1], to perform these simulations, which has been validated against small-scale reactors in our previous work [2]. There is currently a knowledge-gap regarding bubble-size distributions when using gas mixtures with vastly different properties, which can have a significant impact overall mass-transfer. For example, hydrogen bubbles are more buoyant compared to other relatively heavier gases (CO2/CH4/CO), resulting in a large distribution of residence times and bubble sizes. This work therefore develops a deeper understanding of bubble dynamics and interphase mass transfer in such heterogenous gas mixtures through well-resolved computational models. We use a population balance model (PBM) for bubble-size-distribution modeling that is validated against small-scale experiments in our solver with an uncertainty quantification study for bubble coalescence and break-up model parameters. Results pertaining to multiple simulations of gas-fermentation reactors are presented where gas mixtures with varying compositions of CO2/CH4/CO/H2 are imposed at the sparger boundaries. The spatio-temporal variations in bubble-size distribution and mass transfer coefficient are analyzed for varying superficial velocities and gas-compositions for varying sizes of bubble-column and airlift reactors. This work will also examine the performance of different reactor designs, viz. bubble column reactor, airlift reactor with an internal draft tube, and a stirred-tank reactor with Rushton impellers. Reactor mass-transfer coefficient, gas hold-up, and dissolved gas distribution are critically analyzed among reactors, and sensitivity studies pertaining to gas flow rates and reactor geometry will be presented. [1] Weller, H., Tabor, G., Jasak, H. and Fureby, C., A tensorial approach to computational continuum mechanics using object-oriented techniques, Computers in physics, 12, 6, 620--631, 1998. [2] Rahimi, M., Sitaraman, H., Humbird, D. and Stickel, J., Computational fluid dynamics study of full-scale aerobic bioreactors: Evaluation of gas-liquid mass transfer, oxygen uptake, and dynamic oxygen distribution, Chemical Engineering Research and Design, 139: 283-295.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages24
StatePublished - 2023

Publication series

NamePresented at the 2023 NETL Multiphase Flow Science Workshop, 1-2 August 2023

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/PR-2C00-86976


  • bioreactors
  • computational fluid dynamics
  • multiphase flows
  • reacting flow


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