Biotechnology is one of the key enabling technologies that will allow the sustainable production of fuels, chemicals and materials. Despite the progress in genetic and metabolic engineering, several bio-based processes are still plagued by limited product titers and volumetric productivities or suffer from side reactions decreasing the yield of the process. That's why technological breakthroughs are needed to intensify the processes and reduce the consumption of energy and resources. Among them is the combination of bioconversion processes with separation technology. VITO often applies membrane technology because it is modular, may introduce selectivity, operates under mild environmental conditions and can easily be integrated with bioprocesses.

Your benefits

Switching from (fed-)batch to continuous operation:

Continuous operation offers several advantages such as high productivities, decreased downtime and ideally constant stream composition due to steady-state operations. However, from a biological point-of-view it may also increase the chances of contamination and strain instability or degeneration. Commercial full scale examples prove that these concerns are not insurmountable if the right measures and precautions are taken.

Cell recycle and high cell density operation:

Membrane bioreactor (MBR) concepts integrating micro- or ultrafiltration membranes achieve effective cell separation based on size exclusion and combine reaction and product recovery in one step. Indeed, coupling membranes to a fermentation process allows to retain microbial cells (and enzymes) and produce clarified fermentation broths for further downstream processing. Moreover, it allows to control the biomass residence time independently of the dilution rate. Operation at high cell densities is then possible resulting in substantial productivity increase:

  • 10-fold higher productivity (and higher) compared to continuous process without coupled membranes at full substrate conversion
  • Productivities up to 30 g/L.h demonstrated in coupled set-up under industrially relevant operating conditions

In-situ product recovery (ISPR):

When bioprocesses suffer from product inhibition or from unstable end-products, it can be advantageous to invest in a recovery technology that allows the selective separation of the product while it is being produced during fermentation. This in-situ product recovery (ISPR) concept can improve productivities and/or yields. The choice of a proper recovery technology will depend on the properties of the molecule to be added or removed and on the environmental conditions. Examples of applicable membrane-based separations are:

  • pervaporation for removal of volatile products
  • electrodialysis for removal of charged molecules or
  • membrane contactor for (reactive) extraction of more apolar compounds

Demonstrated benefits include :

  • enrichment of the product (x10) leading to a decrease in downstream processing costs (-50%)
  • improvement of the volumetric productivity by alleviation of product inhibition (x2.5)
  • reduction of process flows (decrease amount of waste water per weight unit of product) (-50%)
  • improved yield by removing the target product from the fermentation broth and rendering it unavailable for side reactions (x2)

Our offer

Access to combined knowhow (design, proof-of-concept, applicability, engineering, techno-economic feasibility studies) regarding 1- integrated bioconversion concepts and processes, 2- optimization and intensification of fermentation processes and 3- membrane-based separation.  Access to lab- and pilot-scale equipment. VTO’s equipment and expertise for intensification of fermentation processes are of interest to:

  • companies aiming to improve their existing processes
  • companies developing new bioconversion or synthesis routes
  • companies active in biocatalyst development and in need of a bioprocess development partner
  • technology developers or suppliers

Why work with VITO?

Equipment and infrastructure

  • Fermenters (up to 12 L working volume) for operation in single- or multi-stage configurations, in stand-alone mode or coupled with separation technology, and in (repeated) batch, fed-batch or continuous mode
  • Lab certification/permit for work with GMOs
  • Tailor-made flexible mobile skids for validation testing on-site, including membrane units for micro-, ultra- and nanofiltration, organophilic and hydrophilic pervaporation units, an electrodialysis unit. All skids are equipped with on-line measurements for proper monitoring, automation and (remote) control

Download lab & pilot separation infrastructure document

Expertise and knowhow

  • Unique track record on long term operation of membrane bioreactors for high cell density operation and for in-situ product recovery
  • Extensive experience with long-term continuous fermentations, both on first and second generation feedstocks, with pure or mixed cultures, and in single- and multistage configurations
  • Extensive knowhow on design, engineering, operation and optimization of fermentation processes coupled with membrane technology
  • Phased trajectory from proof-of concept to feasibility studies at lab- and pilot-scale
  • Techno-economic assessment of results
  • Existing patent portfolio

The ButaNexT project aimed to develop highly efficient production processes and convert sustainable feedstocks for the next generation of biobutanol. It contributed to overcoming the current challenges and limitations exhibited by the first generation of biofuels. VITO was involved in the development and validation of the fermentation process, coupled with pervaporation for in-situ recovery of the produced solvents.

This project entitled ‘Industrial Biotechnology Innovation and Synthetic Biology Accelerator 1.0’, aims to create a coordinated network of research infrastructure facilities that support industrial biotechnology. The work of the network is to open access to first-rate research facilities and lay the foundations for a permanent research infrastructure that will address some of the main challenges that are currently hampering the development of industrial biotechnology. VITO contributes with its infrastructure on bioprocess optimization and intensification.

The main aim of SPICY (Sugar-based chemicals and Polymers through Innovative Chemocatalysis and engineered Yeast) is to provide chemical industry with new or optimized processes to convert sugars into added value compounds, i.e. both drop-ins and novel biobased chemicals.

MELiSSA or 'Micro Ecological Life Support System Alternative' refers to a research program managed by the European Space Agency. It aims to develop an artificial ecosystem for (bio)regenerative life support during long-term space missions e.g. to Mars. The project is a collaborative effort of 14 core partners (including VITO) and numerous supporting organizations.  The MELiSSA initiative is internationally recognized as the most advanced effort to develop artificial life support systems. VITO activities focus on membrane bioreactor systems and on the fate and effect of microcompounds during closed loop operation.