Bioprocess engineering - more than just the sum of individual disciplines
The inclusion of biological processes in production processes has huge potential for industry. Bioprocess engineering helps to produce materials more efficiently than ever before; at the same time it opens up ways to new and often better products.
Over the last century, science has diversified considerably. The immense increase in knowledge has led to continuing specialisation and the development of new, even more specific scientific areas. It seems that this is the only way to cope with the huge amount of progress made. The universal scholar has become a dying breed and the representatives of the individual disciplines have become so different from each other that they are unable to communicate in a common language.
At present, this situation seems to be undergoing a reversal, at least to some extent. Bioprocess engineering, involving the natural sciences and the engineering sciences, is a particularly successful example of two different scientific areas coming closer together. Baden-Württemberg is at the forefront of this development. In this German state, process engineering has always had a high industrial and academic profile and is surrounded by a highly dynamic biotech scene. Openness, curiosity and the readiness to learn from each other brings the stakeholders together and is the prerequisite for innovative developments.
A marriage of convenience
Bioprocess engineering remains deeply ingrained in the two original disciplines. On the one hand, it is part of biotechnology since it involves methods of microbiology, biochemistry, molecular and cell biology as well as genetics to use living cells in technical processes and industrial production. On the other hand, it is also part of process engineering as it deals with the application of chemical and mechanical processes for converting and treating substances in biotechnological processes as well as with the development, planning, construction and operation of technical plants that are required for doing so.
The enormous and continuously growing importance of bioprocess engineering is also reflected by the work of big institutions. In Stuttgart alone, there are two institutions that focus on bioprocess engineering. At the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology IGB, research results are directly transferred into economically sustainable products. The liver reactor for pharmaceutical substance tests is one example. The article “Practical report: the combination of biology and process engineering” focuses on how two disciplines have grown together.
At the Institute for Bioprocess Engineering at the University of Stuttgart, the scientific teams are dealing with the whole range of biochemical engineering to design, analyse and optimise the production of substances in bioreactors and cell cultures. Systems biology is an important driver of bioprocess engineering. The University of Karlsruhe also focuses on bioprocess engineering. Florian Lehr is working on a production method that will enable the algae Chlamydomonas reinhardtii to produce hydrogen on a large scale. A 3-litre-laboratory bioreactor is already available and provides the data that are required for the subsequent development of larger reactors. A 30-litre reactor will be set up in 2008 and the first 250-litre reactor is planned for 2010 (see article entitled “Algae for economical hydrogen production”).
Virtual cells help to optimise biobased production methods
An important prerequisite for the successful application of bioprocess engineering is the computer-assisted simulation and modelling of organism metabolisms that are to be included in production processes. Instead of using the classical “trial and error” principle, simulations are a far quicker and more cost-efficient method for assessing the effects of specific metabolic manipulations on the production of the desired substance (see article entitled “Insilico is designing Formula-One type bacteria”).
The classical chemical industry also uses bioprocess engineering, for example for the production of enzymes. The production of monomers and polymers for the processing industry is an important field of the future. Bioproduction represents an ecological as well as increasingly economically interesting alternative to petrochemistry. Another field of application has developed in the industrialisation of food production. Big companies have an own process development department that uses biological systems to produce aromas and flavour enhancers such as the amino acid glutamate as well as valuable food additives (see article entitled “Tasting for research”).