With the new year upon us, many beer lovers will be spreading the cheer at one of our great local brew-pubs. As they hoist a tasty toast to new beginnings, not many revelers are likely to pause to ponder the effort that went into creating their brew.
The ancient craft of brewing has benefited from high-tech advances over the years, and now ultrasound technology is stepping up to help brewers simplify clarification of the hoppy refreshment. Ultrasound is better at selecting out particular sediments from the mix than filters or centrifuges, allowing brewers to remove the larger particles while leaving behind those that boost a beer’s traditional character.
The concept of membrane-free filtering came from a team of biofuels researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, who needed a way to remove water from soupy algae cultures. The microalgae, which are bred to be full of energy-dense hydrocarbons just like the liquid fuels used to power automobiles and airplanes, must be separated from their vast watery surroundings. The combination of ultrasonic standing waves — a wave that remains in place — and gravity can drop the algae particles to the bottom of a tank, where they become much more concentrated and favorable to extract.
Our ultrasound approach, called UltraSep, has many advantages over traditional filtration. It is safer than using high-speed centrifuges, certainly quieter and it produces much less waste than the filtering process.
UltraSep introduces silent ultrasonic waves that bounce back and forth across a tank, which forms regularly spaced pressure nodes at fixed locations, thus the term “standing wave.” Particles are trapped in the standing wave and gather at the nodes until they clump up and gravity pulls them to the bottom of the tank.
Not all the particles need to go, as anyone who appreciates a good hazy IPA or a Hefeweizen would know. The smidgeon of proteins, polyphenols and polysaccharides suspended in the beer contribute to its unique character and flavor and should remain.
For this project to emerge from the Los Alamos benchtop laboratories into the brewing world, it took a Department of Energy program called Energy I-Corps, designed to match laboratory researchers with industry contacts, developing pathways for newborn technology to reach the market. A contact at the Los Alamos Feynman Center of Innovation, Colleen Pastuovic, suggested the match to New Mexico’s craft brewing world, where innovation is valued and techniques to improve production are welcomed.
Funded by the New Mexico Small Business Assistance program, a test session with five local breweries and 12 varieties of their beers showed that UltraSep removed large particles while leaving smaller particles behind.
A new round of testing is about to get underway, aiming to understand more precisely the impact of UltraSep on the beer composition. By removing particles that most threaten the quality and stability of packaged beer, UltraSep hopes to provide brewers with a new tool that simplifies clarification while delivering the taste experience brewers work diligently to achieve.
The next challenge will be scaling it up, from the benchtop model to more effectively meet the needs of brewers and their thirsty customers.
One might not expect brewing industry advances to come from the laboratory on the hill, but then again, just as NASA brought us Tang, technology spin-offs can offer us a host of tasty surprises.
James Coons is a chemical engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory.