Bio-Economy and Technology: The Challenges of Industrial Fermentation

Laboraty fermenter used in industrial fermentation to cultivate microorganisms
Microbial fermenter

In a previous blog about industrial fermentation, we defined traditional fermentation and industrial fermentation and gave examples of applications. Human beings have been experimenting with fermentation for thousands of years. However, bringing fermentation to an industrial scale is not that simple. There are numerous challenges facing industrial companies from technical barriers to regulation. In this blog, we will discuss some of these challenges and give you an insight into the complexity of this technology, starting with some technical barriers.

Fermentation is a biological process. This means that several parameters in the fermenter can cause a failure in production. Let’s discuss some of the bottlenecks of the fermentation process

Raw materials purity

The lack of purity of the raw materials to ferment or the presence of stress-inducing chemicals in the medium: This is a common issue in biofuel production. Most microorganisms will be inhibited by the presence of alcohol or organic acids, two components generally involved in the process.

Competition in the fermenter

The presence of undesirable competitive microorganisms or phages in the fermenter: This can result in partial or complete loss of production. Industrial fermentation requires a sterile production environment.

Product inhibition

Product inhibition is also a technical barrier to consider: It is a type of enzyme inhibition where the product of an enzyme reaction binds to the enzyme and inhibits its activity. For example, Newlight Technologies is a company who produces a bio-plastic called AirCarbon. It has taken them nearly 10 years to “develop a biocatalyst that does not “turn itself off” based on the amount of polymer being produced”.

Microorganisms intrinsic limits

The inability of microorganisms to process economically viable raw materials: An example is the production of vanillin by fermentation. Various precursors to the vanillin biosynthesis pathway in microorganisms can be used, such as eugenol or ferulic acid. Ferulic acid can be recovered from agricultural plant waste, which constitutes a cheap starting material for bio-production. However, the recovery of ferulic acid from plant cell walls appears to be somewhat complicated and costly.

Recombinant strains of bacteria, fungi, and yeasts represent an interesting alternative to wild-type strains, and a diverse set of methodologies has been developed to engineer and optimize the bioconversion of various precursors to vanillin. BASF and Conagen are among the organisations developing such microorganisms industrially:

Other bottlenecks can emerge such as inefficient metabolic flow, costly downstream processing methods due to the physicochemical properties of the substrate and the product, and further metabolism of the desired product by the selected microorganisms.

All these technical issues can indirectly affect the costs by impacting production schedules and product quality or by involving additional stages of research and development. As a key technology in the bio-economy, industrial fermentation must also respond to sustainability and regulatory pressures.

We will look at these in our next blog: How Sustainability and Regulation Affect Industrial Fermentation

Other resources you might like:

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