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Interfacing biology and engineering

By Dorothy Lozowski |

When I was studying for my degrees in chemical engineering, I had the option to take several elective courses. Two that I chose were biochemical engineering and biomedical engineering. During the biomedical engineering course, I was fascinated with the ways in which the basic principles that I had learned in my chemical engineering classes could be put to use in medical devices, such as applying mass- and heat-transfer principles to dialysis equipment. Some of the lessons learned from the biochemical engineering course were put to use in a research project I worked on related to oxygen mass transfer in fermentation.

At the time, these were the only elective courses in bioengineering available. Since then, the department name of my alma mater has been changed from the Department of Chemical Engineering to the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. And, the university now (since 2010) also offers a degree in biomedical engineering.

 

Bioengineering

A look at academic curricula today reveals numerous programs that combine chemical engineering departments and biology, and many that also have distinct “bioengineering” departments. The University of California at Berkeley (www.berkeley.edu), for example, has a Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE), as well as a Department of Bioengineering. Columbia University (New York; www.columbia.edu) lists both Chemical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering Departments. The National University of Singapore (www.nus.edu.sg) names a Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, as well as a Department of Biomedical Engineering in its offerings. And the list goes on.

It seems that some references to bioengineering equate it to biomedical engineering, while others use the term more broadly to include bioprocessing. Whatever terms are used, the integration of biology with engineering is a growing field, and its application in the chemical process industries (CPI) is expanding.

 

Application

In addition to well-known operations, such as beer brewing, fermentation processes have advanced to become viable options for producing chemicals that had traditionally been produced only via chemical routes.

A host of examples is given in Part 1 of this month’s Cover Story — Harnessing Biotechnology: A Practical Guide (pp. 38–43). The same article concisely outlines principles that are important for successful industrial application of bioengineering.

And, new advances in synthetic biology are opening the door to new possibilities for the manufacture of bio-based chemicals. You’ll find insight into some of these developments in Part 2 of our Cover Story, Synthetic Biology for Chemical Production (pp. 44–49).

Biological processes other than fermentation have been in use in the CPI for quite some time. Treatment of wastewater by biological means, for example, is a well-established procedure. Some of the special considerations needed for the microorganisms are described in this month’s article on Biological Wastewater Treatment (pp. 64–67).

We hope you enjoy reading these and the full selection of articles in this issue. ■

Dorothy Lozowski, Editor in Chief

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