Researchers at Seattle’s University of Washington have invented a new, cheaper, and more efficient way to ferment yeast that involves using a 3D printer. The 3D-printed bioreactor can be created in just five minutes, although it has the ability to continue fermenting for months at a time. It opens up new possibilities for brewing beer and, further down the line, potentially developing new drugs as well.
“We have developed the materials and a process to 3D print hydrogels embedded with yeast cells,” Dr. Alshakim Nelson, lead researcher on the project, told Digital Trends. “Hydrogels are materials that are comprised of a significant volume of water, [like] Jell-O. Our hydrogels are about 70 percent water by weight, and the yeast cells appear to exist quite comfortably inside the hydrogel. Not only are the yeast cells viable within the hydrogel, but they are also metabolically active for extended periods of time. We are excited by the fact that we can use the yeast residing within the 3D-printed structures to actively convert glucose into ethanol for months and months at a time.”
The cube is printed in thin latticed layers, before the hydrogel is cured with ultraviolet light so that it retains its shape. Each cube is around 1 cubic centimeter in each dimension. Once printed, they’re placed in a glucose solution to ferment and transform the solution into alcohol. At present, the 3D-printed cubes have been continuing to ferment for upwards of four months — with no sign of that abating in the immediate future.
“Fermentation of pharmaceuticals, vitamins, and alcohol is a standard practice in industry,” Nelson continued. “We believe that our 3D-printed structures can help improve the efficiency of fermentation processes — for example, keeping the yeast cells trapped inside the hydrogel may simplify their removal at the end of the fermentation process.”
Should this process ever be upscaled to an industrial level, it could be used to replace the batch processing used in today’s fermentation process. “We believe this can become a real technology,” Nelson said. “We are speaking with potential partners to help take this to the next level.”
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