No scaling, no impact

Technical University of Denmark

Why is it important to be able to scale up?

Scaling up is particularly important within biotech for the green transition because the whole purpose is for the solution to be able to make a difference. If the green solutions cannot be used on a large scale, then they will not really make a difference in relation to the climate. So it is important to discover early in the research and development whether it can be scaled up.

Why is scaling up a particular challenge within biotechnology?

In bioprocesses, the cells or enzymes that carry out the reactions are sensitive to their environment. And when you scale up, the environment changes. The process is easy enough in a small tank in the lab, but when you go to a 100,000-liter bioreactor, the environment is not completely homogeneous all the time. There can be a difference in the concentration or pH value in different parts of the reactor, and cells and enzymes don’t like that. This means that the processes are not working as efficiently as they would at a lab scale.

What is the consequence of not considering scaleup early enough?

Many ideas never get beyond the lab because there are practical problems with scaling up, or it may not be implemented in an optimal way. Either you find out it doesn’t work when you scale up, or you give up before you get that far. In the past, researchers did not think about scaling up early enough in the process, and this is partly still the case today. But at DTU, we focus on always considering the end goal from the beginning so that you are aware of the final scale in which it must operate to succeed.

How can we get better at scaling?

The most important thing is that biologists, chemists and chemical engineers work together from the beginning. In addition, we try to imitate what is happening on a large scale but on a smaller scale. We call this scale down, and it is a much cheaper way to test scaling.

How does that work?

We know that when, for example, a cell enters a large bioreactor, it is circulated and exposed to different environments. And we can try to simulate that by briefly exposing it to first a high concentration, then a low one, and then repeating it to see how the cell responds. But even using scale-down approaches, you can’t just go from 100 ml to 100 cubic meters, so we have to have a step in between, and that’s why we have our pilot plant, which is a small version of an industrial plant that we use for testing. Here, students, researchers and companies can test their processes under realistic conditions.

How is the demand in the industry?

Companies often look for new opportunities in research, so they need techniques and tools that help them predict what happens when a process is scaled up. It can sometimes be difficult for them to assess whether the results they see in, for example, a research article, can be scaled up if the researchers themselves have not considered this from the start.

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