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New fermentation process helps Penn students brew future

This is about college students and beer. What results isn't a hangover, but a $10,000 prize and a chance to drastically improve the economics of the beer industry.

This is about college students and beer. What results isn't a hangover, but a $10,000 prize and a chance to drastically improve the economics of the beer industry.

The key to such a toast-worthy impact? Speeding up the fermentation process of beer by about three times. If it works for beer, it could work for yogurt and other food involving fermentation.

But that's getting far ahead of what is verified so far, cautioned David Issadore, an assistant professor of bioengineering and electrical and systems engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. The beer-fermentation application created by three Penn grad students is based on technology previously developed in Issadore's lab by a postdoctoral student.

"I think they identified a very important problem," he said of production bottlenecks resulting from the weeks-long fermentation process. "I think there's still a lot of work to be done to prove their work can actually work at the industrial scale."

And that it won't alter the taste of the beer in production.

"No one will be willing to sacrifice flavor in exchange for speed," said Nicholas Siciliano, CEO and cofounder of Invisible Sentinel, a Philadelphia biotech company that develops microbial detection tools aimed at preventing spoilage (its initial focus was on wine and beer). "I would tell [the Penn students] they need to collaborate with brewers before they move into commercialization."

The student team is aptly named Fermento. Two members are enrolled in the Wharton School, the third in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Neither place would be confused with a beer hall, but each is inhabited by lots of smart people, something Fermento's work requires, as it involves droplet micro-fluidic fabrication technology.

Put simply, that means using ultratiny plumbing to dispense millions of ultratiny droplets of liquids, each containing only 100 picoliters of fluid, Issadore said. In beer terms, he offered, that's less than one-billionth of a pint.

It's an emerging technology starting to be used in the pharmaceutical industry, where such small volumes allow experiments that involve extraordinarily expensive ingredients to be carried out inexpensively and in enormous numbers.

The story of how three twentysomethings came to apply that technology to beer manufacturing began at an innovation mixer where not a drop of alcohol was served. Hosted by Wharton and the engineering school, the idea was to bring together students who might otherwise not meet.

Shashwata Narain, Alexander David, and Siddharth Shah met again not long afterward, at a kickoff event for the 2016 Y Prize competition. In its fourth year, the contest challenges student teams to propose innovative commercial applications for technology invented by Penn researchers.

"The idea is, we have a lot of interesting work we do, but it often doesn't get put out into the world, because we don't know the business side," Issadore said.

David, 22, of Brooklyn, N.Y., who is working on his master's degree in bioengineering, was enthused "because the Y Prize was using new biotechnologies."

The idea of applying it to beer production came from Narain, 26, of India. You wouldn't call her a beer guzzler, but she did find a research paper on food processing that talked about the costly delay presented by fermentation. In the typical big-batch reactor process for beer, it's about three weeks, she said.

The Fermento team cited the following as the major challenges of speeding that up: Converting sugar to alcohol - fermentation - is determined by how fast yeast can find and eat sugar in water. While adding more sugar seems logical, that would change the kind of beer that would result, possibly to the point of its not being beer at all. Adding more yeast could result in a destructive overpopulation because it constantly multiplies.

"The only thing left to do is reduce the amount of water they're suspended in," the team wrote in an email.

"Enter microfluidics, which can mix all the ingredients into microdroplets with much more precisely controlled ratios than can be achieved in tanks. . . . Because the yeast can find the sugars faster in these microdroplets, you can start with comparatively more yeast than you can in big tanks. They'll produce the amount of alcohol you want before hitting the overpopulation threshold."

Fermento's proof-of-concept experiment won it the grand prize in the Y Prize contest last month, including $10,000 and the right to commercialize the underlying Penn-owned biomedical-engineering technology developed over two years in Issadore's lab by postdoctoral student Melaku Muluneh.

Next comes more research and development, and a prototype. Shah, 26 - majoring in entrepreneurship and finance at Wharton after founding two start-ups in financial services and e-commerce in India - said Fermento should have a product on the market in six months.

In time for Oktoberfest.