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Biochemical Engineering-Introduction, History, Scope and Applications

Abby is a Biotechnologist by profession and has lab work experience in Genetics and Biochemistry.

Biochemical Engineering

Biochemical engineering, often considered a branch of chemical engineering, deals with applying the advancements in science and technology to biological systems and materials. It is a multi-disciplinary field that carries the knowledge from chemistry, biology, mathematics, engineering and designing for environmental friendly and economically yielding large scale bio-process development. Biochemical engineers study and use the principles of mechanical, industrial and electrical engineering for scale-up and development of living cell based processes or those that utilize the biological components.

It is a broad field that involves designing equipment, planning and process build-up, study and maintenance of processes taking place in living organisms or those that involve biomolecules for achieving certain research or commercial goals as ecofriendly solid waste management systems, health care, waste water treatment, biopharmaceuticals, producing paper from bio-materials, bioreactor and fermenter design and development, food biotechnology and biofuels etc.

Biochemical Engineering-a multi-disciplinary field

Biochemical Engineering-a multi-disciplinary field

History

The use of living processes for developing products dates back in human history when man used the lactic acid activity of lactobacillus for producing yogurt without knowing what actually happens to the milk in this process. In the mid of 19th century, Louis Pasteur studied the role of living organisms in fermentation. He also developed the pasteurization process to prevent the growth of microorganisms in milk and this process is still in use in 21st century.

In the early twentieth century, microorganisms were used at industrial scale though biochemical engineering was not recognized as a separate and important field. The discovery of penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming led to the development of biochemical engineering in 1928.

After this research on exploiting and utilizing the biological activity of living organisms boomed and characterization of microorganisms began. After years and years of hard work in biochemical engineering, today we are enjoying the products from the bio-processes from a number of organisms at a large scale.

Biochemical Process Development

  • The biochemical process mostly exploits the bio capabilities of microorganisms for the desired product yield. The microorganism may be used as such or can be genetically modified by adding gene regulators for improved gene expression and thus product yield. So the first step is to design the process and optimize condition determination at laboratory scale and then gradual scale up is done.
  • Moving gradually in terms of the quantity is very important as a larger venture without substantiated and well established process design and optimal conditions would result in raw material loss and loss of time and efforts.
  • To better understand the process, complete and detailed study of the microbiology along with the agent’s molecular biology and genetics help determine the required optimal conditions and thus add to process effectiveness.
  • Then proper calculations, computational analysis, product analysis and cost analysis is done to check the constructive effect of the efforts.
  • Proper upstream processing is followed by detailed and careful harvest of the product. The product obtained is not in its pure form and is thus subjected to purification process under downstream processing.
Bioprocess Flow Diagram

Bioprocess Flow Diagram

Applications of Biochemical Engineering

Applications in Food Industry

Biochemical engineering is at the heart of modern food processing as the world is moving back to organic methods and is avoiding synthetic and chemical methods. Biochemical engineering is involved in product synthesis, packaging, storage and protections. As of 1985, around 58% of $185 million US market of enzymes was utilized in food industry.

The food industry employs several enzymes as proteases, amylases and carbohydrases. Rennin enzyme which is a chymosin is predominantly sold as it is used in biochemical engineering process for cheese manufacture. Glucoamylase is an enzyme used in cornstarch processing and accounts for 85% of total carbohydrate enzyme sales.

Applications in fermentation industry

Fermentation is a widely exploited procedure from bread making to brewing to pharmaceuticals and even in enzyme production. Genetically modified strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae are utilized by brewing industries for better quality and quantity. Bioreactor design is in accordance with the biochemical engineering principles. In bread making and other food processing industries, complex designed fermenters are used to get the required yield and quality of the product. Biochemical engineers also ensure their smooth execution as well.

Applications in Agriculture

Synthetic and chemical fertilizers and pesticides not only affect the environment adversely but also put the living organism at verge of harm and sometimes even death. In bioprocessing living organisms with potential to kill pests and add to soil fertility are used as biopesticides and bio fertilizers respectively. Complex machinery is designed by biochemical engineers for their synthesis, packaging and special dispersal equipment is also sometimes designed. Though at early stages, biochemical engineering has great applications in field of agriculture in near future.

Applications in Biopharmaceuticals

Certain living organisms are used as pharmaceuticals are have proven benefits. Pharmaceutical and research companies as monsanto, amgen etc. are exploiting biochemical engineering to produce biopharmaceuticals. For example, today insulin is produced via genetically engineered bacteria in complex bioreactors through proper upstream and downstream processing. Similarly, in case of immunizations/ vaccinations the causative agent is either killed or weakened using biochemical engineering equipment, tools and techniques to get the desired concentration and quality of vaccine. Secondary metabolites such as penicillin is produced in specialized fermenters under controlled conditions.

Applications in Energy generation

Biofuels are getting immense importance these days mainly due to the proven harms of petro-chemical use and reduction in fossil resources. Living organisms as certain algae and fungi are utilized to produce biofuel. Similarly, specialized equipment designed by biochemical engineers is used to produce biogas from animal dung.

Applications in Waste management

Waste management is an important issue of the present day world. Biochemical engineers in India have made and designed machinery that takes the solid waste and crushed and processes it to rigid cement that can be used for manufacture purposes. Similarly, complex recycling as in Japan is a fruit of hard work of biochemical engineers.

Applications in Conservation of environment

Biochemical engineering is bring the living organisms to the forefront reducing the room of chemical and synthetic toxic pollutants. In his way, this field is doing a favor to the environment. Oil spill treatment in marine environment is on example of application of biocehmical engineering in the conservation of environment.

Applications in biological warfare

Biochemical engineering has the potential to design deadly biological warfare. There are very strict regulations on this but the devastating potential of microorganisms to cause disease and death can be used as a weapon in war. Bioreactors for the growth of deadly infectious agents can be designed and then dispersed as a strategy in biological warfare.

Biochemical engineering and biotechnology

Biotechnology and biochemical engineering go hand in hand. The intracellular mechanisms are very complex and thus biochemical engineering needs to work in collaboration with biotechnology to bring about biological systems and functions to the industrial scale.

Scope of Biochemical Engineering

Work activities of biochemical engineers

  • Planning, designing, construction and maintenance of pharmaceutical and certain biochemical plants
  • Engineering service provision to bio-based organizations
  • Production, modification and optimization of biological processes
  • Maintenance of production areas, machines and reactions
  • Development of bioprocess system framework
  • Installment, adjustment, maintenance, repair and technical services provision for the biochemical and biomedical devices and equipment
  • Training paramedical staff and researchers to use biomedical machinery properly
  • Research on the engineering domains of living systems
  • Designing and manufacture of healthcare equipment and machinery such as CT scan machine, X rays machine
  • Quality control, research and development in biochemical engineering

Speciality areas in Biochemical Engineering

  • Biomaterials
  • Bioinstrumentation
  • Biotechniques
  • System physiology
  • Biomechanics
  • Rehabilitation engineering
  • Clinical engineering

Limitations

  • The complexity of biological systems and their difficult maintenance is a great hurdle that biochemical engineers have to overcome
  • Inadequate funding in this field because the research process tends to be slow and business men and investors need immediate results
  • High cost of maintenance of complex cell lines
  • Lack of interest of government towards development in this area especially in underdeveloped countries
  • In order for nanotechnology to advance, molecular engineering using improved molecular dynamic simulations will be essential
  • Use of materials that can be reprocessed into similar products, or if not possible, into a cascade of products of lower value, with the final end-products being completely biodegradable.

Conclusion

Biochemical engineering has great potential and bright future aspects for the fact that it is eco friendly and the products produced are comparatively safer than synthetic and chemical products. The role of biochemical engineering in the healthcare area is enormous in terms of development of complex biological systems monitoring machinery. All in all, the interest of world community in biochemical engineering is increasing with time.