Bio-economy and Technology: From traditional to industrial fermentation

Blog Bio-economy and Technology: From traditional to industrial fermentation
Vintage copper kettle in brewery - Belgium
Vintage copper kettle in brewery – Belgium

Man has used fermentation for thousands of years. Today, the principles of fermentation are applied to industrial processes and it is a key technology within the bio-economy, providing us with a wide array of sustainable chemicals from biofuels to cosmetics.

What is “traditional fermentation”?

Fermentation has been part of our daily lives since simple microbes were first ‘domesticated’. It has been one of man’s earliest food preservation technology used for centuries prior to the discovery of pasteurization and sterilization.

Every culture has a variety of fermented food and drink as part of its diet. It is a relatively cost‐effective, low‐energy preservation technique, essential to extending shelf life and ensuring food safety. You will come across it every day when you consume bread, sausages, yogurt, wine or beer, for example.

What is “industrial fermentation”?

The bio-economy has evolved with the development of molecular science and cell biology. Consequently, sub-sectors have evolved such as biotechnology, biofuels and green chemistry. In the media, industrial fermentation is largely associated with bioenergy and bioplastic solutions. Industrial fermentation is also used in life science, food & drink, cosmetics, and others.

Industrial fermentation is a biotechnological process based on the exploitation of cells to produce the desired end-product. This might include molecules like organic acids, amino acids, vitamins, enzymes, antibiotics, biopolymers or others. The cell may be a bacterium, a yeast, an alga, or more complex such as a mammal cell (the most used is CHO – Chinese Hamster Ovary cell).

Colonies of bacteria growing on a Petri dish
Colonies of bacteria growing on a Petri dish

The aim is to produce these useful molecules on a large scale. Using ‘simple’ microorganisms enables us to produce simple molecules, such as ethanol by yeast or lactic acid by bacteria. More complex microorganisms such as mammal cells are used in the life science industry to produce more complex chemicals like antibodies or drugs.

Industrial fermentation requires various disciplines: microbiology, genetics, biochemistry, chemical engineering, synthetic biology among others. So, companies need to access an appropriate range of skills and techniques to be successful in developing products through fermentation.

Common industrial fermentation applications

As mentioned earlier, the range of applications is almost infinite. Many industries develop their products using fermentation technology. Here are a few examples of products on the market using industrial fermentation:

  • Food: Quorn Foods and 3F Bio produces mycoproteins, a variety of protein obtained by fungal fermentation and used in meat-free products
  • Animal Feed: Veramaris, a joint venture between DSM and Evonik, uses marine microalgae to ferment omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) for animal nutrition, especially aquaculture
Microalgae in laboratory tubes
Microalgae in laboratory tubes
  • Cosmetics: Metabolic Explorer, via its subsidiary METEX NØØVISTA, produces 1,3 Propanediol (PDO) by industrial fermentation. The company has recently signed a partnership with DSM to market this molecule to the cosmetic ingredients market
  • Bioplastics: Danimer Scientific uses bacteria to ferment polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), a polymer found in bioplastics

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg.  When you see how much can be done with technologies such as industrial fermentation, the possibilities are truly exciting.

Many challenges can hinder the development of new products by industrial fermentation, not least return on investment. We will look at some of the more common challenges in our next blog.

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