Y-Prize winners want to speed up beer brewing

Drinks are on them: Alexander David, Shashwata Narain, and Siddharth Shah, students in the Wharton School and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, have won the 2016 Y-Prize Competition with a plan to speed up the fermentation stage of beer brewing by three times, and possibly more.

As Grand Prize winners, the team received $10,000 and the rights to commercialize the technology through their company, Fermento. 

Co-sponsored by Penn Engineering, the Mack Institute for Innovation Management, Wharton Entrepreneurship, and the Penn Center for Innovation, the Y-Prize is a cross-disciplinary competition in which student teams propose innovative commercial applications for technology invented by Penn researchers.

The Fermento team selected microfluidic fabrication technology developed by Assistant Professor of Bioengineering David Issadore as the basis of their application.

The alcohol in beer is the product of yeast, which metabolically converts sugar found in barley and other grains into ethanol. This fermentation process typically occur in large batch reactors, where a concoction of boiled and strained grain liquid, known as wort, is left mixed with a carefully controlled amount of yeast.

This stage is one of the major bottlenecks of beer production. It can take up to three weeks, as maintaining the correct amount of yeast is a delicate balance.   

“There is only a certain amount of yeast cells one can directly add to a batch reactor,” Narain says, “because overpopulation causes physiological stress on the yeast cells, which in turn reduces reaction rate. It takes time for yeast cells to grow and reach a critical mass to produce enough beer. Moreover, the concentration of sugar available to yeast cells is limited because in a large batch solutions, yeast cells don't consistently interact with sugar molecules.”  

Capable of delivering precisely controlled amounts of liquids to exact locations in a conveyer-belt fashion, microfluidics present a possible solution to both of these challenges. Yeast and wort can be introduced to one another in microdroplets, providing the optimal ratio for fermentation each time.   

“Microdroplets to speed up fermentation have been tried in labs, but none of the technologies so far are scalable,” Narain says. “This patented technology actually makes the process industrially scalable for the first time, and in a financially feasible manner.”

Issadore’s technology was also selected by the two runner-up teams, VivaVaccines and Amsterdam Fluidics, who proposed to use it in different drug manufacture and delivery applications.