Researchers’ carbon capture system could cut emissions and costs for small breweries

Microcapsules developed by LLNL to capture carbon dioxide from fermentation at breweries // Photo via LLNL's website

Microcapsules developed by LLNL to capture carbon dioxide from fermentation at breweries // Photo via LLNL’s website

Carbon capture technology developed for power plants may just help craft breweries reuse carbon dioxide from their fermentation processes and slash their costs, thanks to the work from group of researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and the Department of Energy’s Lab-Corps Pilot Program.

Carbon dioxide is an essential component used in the beer industry, but it’s also a byproduct of the fermentation process. In fact, breweries produce three times as much carbon dioxide during fermentation as they use to carbonate and package their beer. While larger breweries often have carbon dioxide recovery systems, many smaller microbreweries don’t have the ability to capture and recycle the gas back into their operations. Instead, microbreweries typically purchase carbon dioxide from local suppliers to meet their needs.

After talking with craft breweries, the research team at LLNL has developed a way for small brewers to capture the carbon dioxide from fermentation, reuse it in their breweries, and sell the surplus on the retail market.

The researchers’ method uses gas-permeable microcapsules filled with a sodium carbonate solution (a low-cost chemical compound related to baking soda) to absorb the carbon dioxide. The microcapsules store the carbon dioxide until they are heated and release it as a gas.

“We want to adapt this technology for capturing carbon dioxide in breweries as a way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere and cut their purchase costs by up to 75 percent,” Congwang Ye, a LLNL engineer and principal investigator, said in a report. “It will be more environmentally friendly, and not only will it save on costs, but they also can create revenue by selling the excess.”

To create a system small enough to use in a small craft brewery, Ye’s group presented brewers with a “propane tank model,” a basic carbon dioxide capturing system using barrels filled with millions of the microcapsules. In theory, Ye’s company—with a working name of MECS (Micro-Encapsulated Carbon Dioxide Sorbent)—would provide the equipment at no cost upfront to the brewers, who would collect carbon dioxide from the fermenters and fill the tanks. MECS would then send trucks to pick them up, reclaim the carbon dioxide at a centralized hub, sell it back to brewers at a big discount, and MECS would keep the surplus to sell on the open commodities market. The idea could potentially save breweries tens of thousands of dollars a year, said Lionel Keene, the team’s entrepreneurial lead.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researcher Congwang Ye (right) visits with professors at UC-Davis to see their pilot-scale winery and brewery and learn about fermentation tank operations // Photo via LLNL's website

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researcher Congwang Ye (right) visits with professors at UC-Davis to see their pilot-scale winery and brewery and learn about fermentation tank operations // Photo via LLNL’s website

 

The next step for the team is to construct a proof-of-concept installation, which appears to be in the works at UC-Davis’ pilot-scale winery and brewery, according to the Department of Energy (DOE). Furthermore, the team is also looking to continue its research by running additional fermentation-related carbon capture studies.

“We would like to mature the idea with early evangelists and small breweries, so that we can eventually utilize it at the regional breweries, power plants, and other carbon emission sources,”  Ye said in the DOE report.