/ 27 May 2011

Bioprocess engineering: Build the Bio-economy in South Africa

Bioprocess Engineering: Build The Bio Economy In South Africa

Professor Sue T L Harrison — SARChI Chair in Bioprocess Engineering,
Centre for Bioprocess Engineering Research, University of Cape Town

Bioprocess engineering is key in creating a bio-economy in South Africa. Its focus is on efficient processes exploiting novel micro- and molecular biology and biochemistry. The research programme under the SARChI chair in this discipline forms an integral component of the Centre for Bioprocess Engineering Research (CeBER) at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

The research spans bioprocesses applicable to the recovery of minerals, handling of waste streams from mineral processing, including acid mine drainage, renewable energy, fine chemicals for nutraceuticals, health, renewable commodities particularly where these can be derived from waste resources.

The focus is on improved process sustainability and integrated process systems. By targeting commodity bioproducts, the programme has developed tools to assess the environmental footprint of bioprocesses in the early design stages, allowing greatest flexibility to select environmentally responsible processes.

Achievement of integrated process systems requires fundamental research into both the unit operations and biology of the process, the latter in terms of physiology, microbial ecology and metabolic flux. To maximise the programme’s contribution to innovation competitiveness, research crosses disciplinary and national boundaries.

Within South Africa, collaborations extend into the life sciences, physics, mineralogy and core chemical engineering disciplines. Internationally, the programme works with key labs providing niche expertise. These include exploring tomography for analysis of reactor systems with Cambridge University and Imperial College, London, microbial cell breakage with Mumbai University, substrate provision with the Technical University of Berlin and microbial colonisation of mineral systems with UCN, Chile.

The research centered on this Chair has attracted talented young researchers passionate about making a difference and changing the face of engineering, which has enabled opportunities to mentor and develop young research capacity to address the economic and environmental challenges of today.

Dr Jochen Petersen, Dr Sanet Minnaar, Dr Caryn Fenner, Dr Rob van Hille and Dr Kevin Harding (currently at WITS) are part of the research team, with 16 PhD and MSc students having graduated from the project over the last three years.

This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian newspaper as an advertorial supplement