Bioprocess expertise leads the field

Professor Sue Harrison at work in the lab. (Supplied)

Professor Sue Harrison at work in the lab. (Supplied)

Tapping into the growing interest in the potential for green technologies, Professor Sue Harrison has established the Centre for Bioprocess Engineering Research (CeBER) at the University of Cape Town. This centre came into being in 2008, the year she was awarded the Bioprocess Engineering Research Chair.

Her work is inter-disciplinary in nature, involving students and researchers from the life sciences, process engineering and other fields to provide new insights into bioprocesses and bioproducts. These insights are important because they are the basis for developing sustainable processes that are less resource intensive and contribute to establishing a bio-economy. Bioprocesses also allow complex molecules that are difficult to synthesise chemically to be manufactured.

The research conducted under the Chair has developed specific expertise in algal cultivation, harvesting and processing, which can be used to produce carotenoids, nutraceuticals, lipids and energy products using carbon dioxide (CO2) as a feedstock.

Another important area of research is bioleaching, a process that replaces conventional processes to recover metals such as copper, zinc and gold from low-grade mineral ores. Not only is this process potentially more environmentally friendly, but it is also less capital intensive and more affordable to operate, particularly as her research group extracts metals from ores containing lower and lower amounts of metal. The centre’s research outputs into bioleaching have placed it among the top four centres in the world in this field.

Knowledge of these processes can also be applied to the problem of acid mine drainage, with research being conducted on how to process the waste ore without producing the resultant pollution as well as on how to remediate acid mine drainage and other effluents from process streams, tailings dumps and the like. In both cases, Harrison and her group intend to derive value simultaneously.

The Chair is also investigating the bioprocesses in other fields, such as fine chemicals, commodity bioproducts and bioprocesses for the manufacture of affordable, modern biopharmaceuticals, antimicrobials, vaccines and nutraceuticals.