Fermentation: Basic principles, processes and gas control
Fermentation? A word that probably gets most people thinking of brewing and alcohol – perhaps even food preservation. In fact, people have been using fermentation processes for millennia to make bread, cheese, yoghurt and alcoholic drinks. Today, many industries use fermentation processes for research and production, including not only food & beverage producers but also the pharmaceutical industry. Here you will find out more about fermentation and gas control in the fermentation process.
Where does the term ”fermentation” come from, and what does it mean?
The term “fermentation” comes from Latin and is closely related to “fermentum”, the Latin name for sourdough. Biotechnology refers to fermentation when converting organic substances using bacteria, fungi or cultures, or by adding enzymes. This produces gases, alcohol and acids. The latter enables foods to keep for longer. There are different fermentation processes, with the main difference between them being that the processes can be anaerobic (no oxygen) or aerobic (using oxygen).
Are fermentation and digestion the same?
Aren’t fermentation and digestion the same thing? These terms are frequently taken to mean the same thing. But this is not entirely true, as fermentation is just one form of digestion, while digestion is just one step in the fermentation process. Digestion is mainly used when the focus is on the breakdown of a substance with little interest in the by-products, for example in sewage digestion. We speak of fermentation, on the other hand, when the aim is to harvest by-products of the digestion process such as gases and acids, for example for food preservation or beer brewing.
The six stages of fermentation
The fermentation process can be broken down into six phases. To achieve optimum results, the process should be stopped before the stationary phase begins.
Fermentation begins with the inoculation of the growth medium using the desired microorganism.
During the lag phase or incubation phase, the microorganisms adapt to their new environment. Cell growth at this point is still slow.
Then begins the exponential growth phase in which the growth rate continuously rises.
During the slow-down phase, the growth rate is reduced due to the declining nutrient concentration.
This is followed by the stationary phase, where the biomass remains constant.
The process is concluded with the death phase of the microorganisms.
Application areas of fermentation
Production of pharmaceuticals (e.g. insulin, vaccines, antibiotics)
Food and beverages (bread, yoghurt and alcoholic fermentation, e.g. in beer and wine)
Chemicals (e.g. detergents)
Amino acids (e.g. glutamate)
Biological wastewater purification
The difference between a bioreactor and a fermenter
A suitable container, referred to as a bioreactor or fermenter, is required for a controlled fermentation process. These containers help to ensure that the fermentation occurs in a controlled fashion under optimised conditions.
Bacteria, yeasts, fungi Cell cultures
Where are bioreactors and fermenters used?
Bioreactors are mainly used in the production of pharmaceuticals such as drugs, antibodies and also vaccines. Fermenters on the other hand are used in foodstuff production and for the production of lactic acid or ethanol.
The bioreactor: Structure and processes
A bioreactor’s purpose is to provide as great a product yield as possible. This requires precise control of all parameters to support the fermentation process as best possible. The type and concentration of the nutrients, the temperature, oxygen content and pH value are critical. Reproducible processes are fundamental to consistently high product quality.
Gas control Four gases are used in the fermentation process: oxygen O₂, nitrogen N₂,
carbon dioxide CO₂ and air.
A variety of inputs, for nutrient solutions or for adding inoculum
to the material to be fermented.
Agitator for ensuring homogenisation throughout the entire reactor
Batch, fed-batch and continuous fermentation: Advantages and disadvantages
Three different processes are used in bioreactors and fermenters: the batch process, fed-batch process and continuous process. Continuous operation is a useful method in large production facilities for cost-efficiency reasons. Batch fermentation is more likely to be used in research or for smaller installations. Find out more here about the advantages and disadvantages of these methods.
The batch method
The bioreactor is completely filled before the fermentation process begins and is completely emptied when the process is complete. Between those two times, nothing is added or removed. Beer brewing, for example, uses this method.
+ Flexible + Low investment costs + Short cultivation times guarantee a low infection risk + Mutation effect of cells has minimal impact
- Filling, sterilising, harvesting and cleaning cause non-productive dead times - High level of material wear & tear - Inoculum is required for every batch - Product quality volatile
The fed-batch process
Substrates are added to the bioreactor during the fermentation process. This method is used where the continuous process is not cost-efficient and where the batch process – for example due to lower substrate concentration – is not productive enough.
+ Great flexibility + High conversion rates due to defined cultivation time + Optimum control conditions + Semi-continuous operation
- Complex process control - High material load - Non-productive dead times
The continuous method
Substrates are continuously added to the bioreactor in a continuous fermentation process and the yield product is extracted continuously. The continuous method is used, for example, in sourdough production or sewage treatment.
+ Automated processes that are very cost-efficient + Consistent quality + Low personnel costs + Low risk of infection
- Low production flexibility - Consistent raw material quality required - High investment costs for automation and sterile control - Higher mutation risk - Higher contamination risk means risk of product loss
Supplying gas to the bioreactor
To precisely control the fermentation process, it is possible to supply the bioreactor with four fermenter gases as needed: oxygen (O2), nitrogen (N2), carbon dioxide (CO2) and air. These gases must be precisely controlled to achieve the desired processes.
Oxygen (O2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) drive the growth process
Pure nitrogen (N2) controls growth rate (e.g. before harvesting)
Air serves as an all-purpose gas when no specific gas supply is required. It contains 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen.
Mass flow controller (MFC) from Bürkert for reproducible fermentation processes. With the help of our MFCs, you can control gases precisely – in an automated and fully reproducible fashion. The devices are compliant with USP Class VI, FDA and can be shipped with a 3.1 certificate.