Loughborough University
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Freeze drying microscopy as a tool to study sublimation kinetics

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posted on 2015-07-23, 10:57 authored by Purnima Raman
Freeze-drying is the process of removal of water or organic solvent from a desired product by means of sublimation at a low temperature and low pressure. It is commonly employed for drying samples which are heat labile and require sensitive treatment, and is mainly used in the pharmaceutical and food industries. It is an expensive process, requiring vacuum, refrigeration and long cycle times, but does yield quality benefits due to the low temperatures involved and the porous nature of the product. Reducing drying times is important to manufacturers, and this depends on optimising rates of heat and mass transfer in the system without the sample losing its porous structure. However, freeze drying is difficult to study experimentally due to the low temperatures and pressures involved. The quality of the final product mainly depends on the sublimation rate and an optimum lyophilisation requires identification of the parameters which influence the process. The main aim of this study is to employ freeze drying microscopy (FDM) as a useful tool to identify these process parameters and help optimise primary drying phase of the freeze drying process for two systems: lactose (relevant to pharmaceuticals) and coffee (the most widely freeze-dried food product). This equipment allows the movement of sublimation fronts to be directly visualised in-situ under carefully controlled (and isothermal conditions), but has scarcely been used in the literature for this purpose. An image analysis method is developed to automatically track the movement of sublimation fronts, and the frontal data fitted to a simple mass transfer model employing surface and bulk resistances. Initial experiments with lactose solution show poor reproducibility in nucleation temperatures during the freezing step and thus primary drying rates. To improve reproducibility, a small amount of silver iodide (AgI) was added to samples which acts as a nucleating agent and increases the nucleation temperature. This addition of AgI also increases the mean ice crystal size in the samples and are easily visible under the freeze-drying microscope, and in many cases show a distinct orientation with respect to direction of sublimation front. Furthermore, the orientation greatly influences sublimation rates, being approximately factor of two faster when crystals are oriented in the direction of mass transfer. FDM experiments with coffee were less straightforward as nucleation temperatures could not be reliably controlled, even with AgI added. Nevertheless there was a clear decrease of bulk resistance with increasing nucleation temperature. An experimental programme was then undertaken to examine the impact of initial solid content, cooling rate, the addition of an annealing step, freeze drying temperature and aeration (for coffee samples). Frontal data were fitted to a simple mass transfer model comprising surface and bulk (per unit depth) resistances and good fits to data were obtained. FDM experiments with lactose and coffee clearly showed the presence of a surface resistance which could also be seen as a surface layer which was devoid of ice crystals (and hence not porous when sublimed). The edge resistance first increased and then decreased with solids content. The resistance per unit depth increased exponentially with solids content, so much so that there is an optimal solids content (around 10% solids) in relation of the rate of production of dried material. Cooling rates were mainly found to affect the surface resistance rather than bulk resistance and this may be due to different levels of surface drying when the samples are being cooled for different lengths of time. Annealing substantially changed the ice crystal sizes, and had a beneficial effect on freeze drying rates and had a similar effect to adding AgI. Freeze drying rates also increased with increasing temperature approximately in line with the saturated vapour pressure (SVP) of ice which is widely held to constitute the driving force for mass transfer. It was possible to make drying time calculations for conventional vial (lactose) and tray (coffee) drying using the frontal rate data obtained from FDM. For 10% lactose and 10% coffee (annealed) there was good agreement between the vial and tray data and predictions based on a microstructure oriented parallel to the direction of mass transfer. This was the only case where agreement was found, but also the only case where directionality was observed in FDM. The much faster drying times observed in the vial and tray experiments are thus attributed to directional solidification occurring in these systems, and this was borne out by SEM imaging. Aeration of the coffee samples was also found to substantially reduce drying times. The influence of microstructure on freeze drying rates is thus very clear.


Department of Chemical Engineering



  • Aeronautical, Automotive, Chemical and Materials Engineering


  • Chemical Engineering


© Purnima Raman

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This work is made available according to the conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) licence. Full details of this licence are available at: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.


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