Spirulina platensis algae. Credit: microbewiki.kenyon.edu/index.php/Arthrospira_platensis

Phys.org reports that scientists have used high-resolution mass spectrometry to determine the composition of a biofuel obtained from the microalgae Spirulina platensis. The researchers studied two biofuel fractions obtained using a special algal mass treatment method. The researchers also proved that biofuel has little to do with oil in terms of its composition. However, it is similar to the “brilliant green” antiseptic commonly sold in Eastern Europe. The results of the study were published in the European Journal of Mass Spectrometry.

The research project was conducted by a group of scientists from Skoltech, the Joint Institute of High Temperatures of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), the V. L. Talrose Institute of Energy Problems of Chemical Physics of RAS, the N. M. Emanuel Institute of Biochemical Physics of RAS, Lomonosov Moscow State University, and the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT).

With sufficient information on the composition of biofuels, researchers can significantly improve production processes. The original techniques for producing fuel from algal mass proved to be energetically unfavorable since much energy is spent on drying the algae, which contain water. A new and more efficient method was needed for commercial use.

Researchers have more recently developed hydrothermal liquefaction – wet biomass is heated to a temperature of more than 300 degrees Celsius and compressed at a pressure of 200 atmospheres; the output is fuel. This is analogous to what happens in nature when high temperatures and high pressures lead to the formation of oil deep in the Earth. However, in the reactor, this process occurs more quickly. The result is two fractions: liquid biofuel and a thick mass remaining in the reactor. Both fractions are mixtures of thousands of individual components, and mass spectrometry is the best way to determine their composition.

Mass spectrometry is an analytical technique used to determine the composition of a substance. It is based on the fact that different compounds behave differently in an electric and/or magnetic field, depending on their mass-to-charge ratio, or m/z. The analysis produces a mass spectrum – a graph intensity vs. m/z, with intensity of peaks proportional to the number of particular m/z ions.

Scientists used mass spectrometry to investigate biofuel obtained from the Spirulina platensis algae. During hydrothermal liquefaction, all substances with a boiling point below 300 degrees C leave the reactor as gases and are subsequently cooled in a special container. Thus, the liquid fraction is extracted, while the solid fraction remains in the reactor.

The mass spectrometry analysis procedures that were then conducted showed that both fractions contained the greatest amount of those substances with nitrogen (N) and dinitrogen (N2) in their composition. The substances found in the biofuel are not similar to those contained in conventional crude oil, although they are combustible. To find out about the structure of the molecules, the researchers used a method known as a hydrogen-deuterium exchange.

“The investigation of hydrothermal liquefaction products of microalgae by means of mass spectrometry is important for increasing the efficiency of biofuel production,” said Professor Evgeny Nikolaev of Skoltech, who is a corresponding member of RAS and the head of the Ion and Molecular Physics Laboratory at MIPT. “Further work needs to be focused on the application of algae varieties with the highest possible lipid content and growth rate and the creation of such varieties using genetic modification methods. This will allow us to find the most effective raw material for biofuels.”

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