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What is a Bioreactor?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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A bioreactor is a container which is used to hold organisms for the purpose of harnessing their natural biochemical processes. A simple and well known example of a bioreactor is a fermentation tank for beer, in which certain microorganisms are encouraged to thrive, causing the contents of the tank to ferment and creating a usable end product. There are a number of types of bioreactors, and they are used for a variety of purposes, from processing solid waste to manufacturing pharmaceuticals.

In a batch bioreactor, everything is added at once to a controlled and sealed environment, and the biochemical reactions are allowed to run their course before the reactor is opened so that the contents can be extracted and utilized, disposed of, or further processes. Others operate on a continuous flow method, in which materials constantly flow through the bioreactor. Waste treatment plants, for example, utilize continuous flow to process solid waste.

A number of criteria must be satisfied when a bioreactor is built. In order for the device to be effective, the conditions need to be tightly controlled, which means that there must be ways to moderate temperature, light levels, moisture, oxygen, and other components of the environment. It is also important to isolate the contents from contaminants so that the bioreactor will work properly, and so that adverse reactions do not occur. In beer, for example, the introduction of the wrong microorganisms can cause the beer to sour.

Conversion of organic waste such as compost or solid waste is a common application for bioreactors. When built properly, the reactor can greatly speed the breakdown process, which contributes to overall efficiency. Bioreactors are also used to promote growth, as for example in the production of tissue cultures, or the cultivation of specific fungi utilized in pharmaceuticals. In some cases, it may be necessary to devise a custom device to meet the specific needs of a particular application, in which case the skills of a biochemist are typically required.

Researchers are constantly devising new uses for bioreactor technology. For example, these devices could potentially be used to produce energy, or to grow tissue and bone grafts. Chemical production can rely heavily on bioreactors, depending on the compounds being manufactured, as can large-scale processing of compost and yard waste for municipalities. Many experiments have also been conducted with bioreactors in challenging environments such as space to learn more about biochemical processes and to generate useful scientific information.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Charred — On Jun 29, 2011

@NathanG- You can build your own algae bioreactor from plastic bottles. I once saw these video tutorials on the Internet that showed how to do it; they’re not that hard to build.

You basically just have these water bottles that you fill with water and algae and then pump a whole bunch of carbon dioxide into the system.

As a result you get pasty algae oil, and you can use this for fuel – at least for biofuels, anyway; you can’t exactly stick it in your car.

By NathanG — On Jun 29, 2011

@backdraft - I think one of the most powerful examples I’ve seen of the potential of bioreactor technology is the algae bioreactor. This is basically a large panel that, when exposed to sunlight, helps to break down the algae using carbon dioxide and produces energy.

I know there are some chemical equations behind it, but I don’t understand the technical aspects all that well. All I know is that it basically resembles a solar panel in design and works on algae.

Algae is plentiful; we can harvest it from swamps, the ocean, just about anywhere. That’s why it’s been used in biofuels for instance. If we can implement this bioreactor technology on a mass scale we could take big steps towards becoming energy independent.

By backdraft — On Jun 28, 2011

@ZsaZsa56 - Absolutely, I couldn't agree with you more. I look at all the things we waste and in this world and I don't know why we don't make more of an effort to put these resources back into the system.

I am completely convinced that the cars of the future will run on some kind of bioreactor technology. Whether they use algae, or bio fuel or trash or some other unknown substance, the principles of this technology make too much sense for locomotion for us to pass up the opportunity. Cars are already bioreactors of a sort, we are just using the wrong kind of fuel.

Billions in R&D money is being spent on this issue right now and that number will only go up. A tremendous amount of scientific will has been pushed in this direction and it is only a matter of time before a feasible bio fuel is discovered.

By ZsaZsa56 — On Jun 28, 2011

Bioreactor technology has been incorporated into sites that hold a lot of waster. There are is a bioreactor landfill close to my house which is able to trap the methane and other natural gases that are produced by the rotting garbage. The uses of this gas are huge and producing them was almost free.

I think in the future there will be a huge potential for technologies such as these. Bioreactor design will have to evolve to try and harness the energy already on earth that we waste on a daily basis. We are at the beginning of a looming energy crisis and bioreactors are one promising solution.

By nextcorrea — On Jun 27, 2011

After I read this article the first example that came to mind was a worm farm. You put in newspapers and other waster, the worms eat them and then pass them through their digestive system. The material that the worms produce you can collects and use as a powerful fertilizer. Lots of people keep worm farms around as a cheap source of fertilizer for their garden. I'm not sure this meets the strict definition of a bioreactor but I think it comes pretty close

By anon70922 — On Mar 16, 2010

What organisms does a bioreactor usually hold?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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