The diverse bioreactor market, consisting of glass, stainless steel, and plastic, has been heating up as the center of gravity for industrial and pharmaceutical biotechnology disperses away from Europe and the U.S. to Asia, South America, and the Pacific Rim.
“New markets are emerging especially in biofuels and second- and third-generation bioprocesses,” says Eric Abellan, product manager for bioreactors at Infors. Interest in application-specific bioreactors and incubation shakers for photosynthesis and simultaneous scarification and fermentation is increasing, as well.
Bioreactors have always been specified on the basis of performance and quality, but increasingly the emphasis is shifting to capabilities that provide process understanding to support quality by design. Thus, increased demand for new sensors or measurement systems, adaptive software environments, design of experiment capability, and a renewed interest in glass and stainless reactors.
Each bioreactor, Abellan says, sits at the center of a bioprocess “ecosystem” where flexibility, particularly with respect to sensor technology, is highly desirable. These factors continue to make glass and stainless steel bioreactors the process vessels of choice for many nonmammalian cells and organisms, and for several key industries.
For one of Infors’ niche markets, biofuels, single-use equipment is mostly limited to downstream processing and what Abellan calls “peripheral equipment such as harvest bags or media prep tanks.”
He notes that for smaller fermentations and development-stage processes, glass bioreactors may be superior to stainless steel due to greater ease of cleaning. Infors recently launched LabCIP, a cleaning and sterilization-in-place device developed for the company’s Labfors 5 benchtop glass bioreactor. “This allows a faster turnover thanks to the overnight automatic cleaning and sterilization of the vessel, which shifts operator effort away from cleaning to more productive tasks,” he says.
Erik Kakes, co-owner of Applikon Biotechnology, observes that glass bioreactors dominate in many development settings. Applikon sells uncontrolled bioreactors (without sensors) as small as 200 µL in volume. Its controlled units range from 3 mL working volume, through benchtop scale and up to 4,000 liters.
Smaller systems used in R&D provide all the benefits of parallelism: The ability to run multiple conditions, collect data simultaneously, and fit reactors with sensors, mixers, pressure devices, and other goodies that would be difficult to implement in plastic. Single-use systems at the same scale lack this level of flexibility.
“With disposables, you have to work with what you get,” Kakes tells GEN. Applikon claims full scalability, up to production levels. Depending on the scale, units are autoclaved in multiples, which reduces cleaning effort. “The advantages of running things in parallel extend to cleaning,” Kakes says.
Universities, which lack the resources to replace a bioreactor after each use, are another sweet spot for stainless and glass. The versatility provided by stainless steel and glass are exactly what research centers look for, Kakes says. “They want to customize, play around with the design, and build whatever it is they’re thinking of,” he says.
Another preferred venue for fixed tanks are single-product facilities. Yes, cleaning and related validation can be a burden for these facilities, mainly in terms of time and facility utilization. “However, labor related to sanitization is minimal as cleaning regimens are virtually automatic. You lose some time, but you need not invest in large quantities of plastics,” says Kakes.