New prospects in industrial biotechnology (processes, new products) developed in the lab will have to be tested at a relevant scale before they can be taken into commercial production.
A test facility that imitates the production process at a semi-technical scale is a costly but necessary step in mastering process conditions for an optimal process control. Some products and processes even require a demonstration facility before the step to a full scale factory can responsibly be made. Very large corporations can afford these expenses, small ones cannot. Nevertheless it is an absolute prerequisite to investigate process conditions and feedstock before deciding to venture into the construction of a full-scale factory, in view of the complexity, and the high costs and risks involved in scaling up these new processes or products.
On the basis of DSM’s pilot facilities
Some universities and companies construct small pilot plants in which they investigate the very first step of scaling up from the lab. In Delft, they chose another pathway in creating the Bioprocess Pilot Facility (BPF). This facility is has the existing pilot facilities of DSM as its backbone, facilities constructed for investigation of its fermentation and recovery processes. These pilot installations are DSM’s contribution to a joint venture, in which also Corbion-Purac and Delft Technical University participate. In order to facilitate the transition towards lignocellulosic feedstock, the plant is retrofitted to include research on processing biomass feedstock of varying origin (including straw, corn stover, wood chips etc.) to fermentable sugars. For this new facility, BPF acquired subsidies from the EU, the Ministry of Economic Affairs, the province of Southern Holland, and the municipalities of Delft, Rotterdam and The Hague.
The BPF is an open facility, meaning that anyone is free to make use of it. Small entrepreneurs who want to test their technology, biotech companies that would like to investigate other feedstock for their existing processes, equipment designers who need to test the actual operation of their designs and researchers who want to have a better look at the scale effects of their discoveries. A whole array of possibilities is contained in the modular design and the wide range of available unit operations.
The BPF is a very flexible pilot plant. It can use sugar as the feedstock for the fermentation process, and also side streams from agriculture and forestry. The feedstock is pre-treated, often first by pelletisation and then by processing at high temperature (and pressure)in order to break the bonds between the various components of the plant. After a possible next step, like hydrolysis to produce the sugars, fermentation takes place.
The BPF is equipped with fermenters in different sizes up to a volume of 8 m3 that can handle a diversity of microorganisms, like bacteria, yeasts and fungi. Fermentation processes can be done in batch, batch-fed and continuous processes, and in aerobic and anaerobic conditions. The process engineers can isolate the product either from the cell in which it is formed, or from the fermentation medium. The BPF has a staff of highly experienced process technologists and process operators.
This Delft pilot plant lends many facilities to biotechnological industries for research on their processes and for scaling them up, more than most other pilot plants.