The vast applications of biotechnology has already influenced the day to day life of the world population to such an extent that many are not even aware of the extensive consumption of biochemical products like medicines, food, fuels and lots more. Most of these products are taken for granted and the question of how they are actually produced does not occur to a common man. But the general mass is well aware of the various research activities going on in biotech laboratories across the globe. The experiments that scientists conduct in a laboratory use life forms like microbes, animal or plant cells, or genetically modified organisms, providing them optimum growth conditions to produce a desired product, which is useful for mankind.
The process carried out in a conical flask in the laboratory needs to be scaled up in order to facilitate the production of large quantities of the biotech or biochemical product, to meet the demand of the market. This is where the role of biochemical engineer comes. Biochemical engineering is a multidisciplinary field that implements engineering principles to design and operate unit processes required to successfully produce high quality bio products. It is regarded as a subset of chemical engineering that plays a central role in generating prospective biotech products on a large scale which will be sufficient to carry out testing, regular quality check and subsequent product marketing in its finished form. A broad range of industries like agriculture, health care, chemicals, enzymes, food, energy, etc. use biochemical process technology. Earlier, biochemical engineering was regarded to have less focus on healthcare compared to biomedical engineering. But now, researches in medical field actively include biochemical engineers who contribute a considerable amount of their talent in the discovery of new medicines and cure for newly emerging health problems.
The main focus of a biochemical engineer is to optimize the growth conditions of microbes under aerobic conditions in a reaction mixture of volume around thousand litres. The scope of the job has expanded now aiming for the design of an economic process in which maximum biomass yield is obtained, with lesser input of raw material and at cheap operating costs, thus ensuring maximum efficiency, safety of operation and quality of product output. To succeed in this field, one should be thorough with the basics of microbiology, biochemistry, enzyme engineering and such variety of subjects in biotechnology and also have the problem solving skill of an engineer. The work of a biochemical engineer is not limited to a lab alone, but can include the overall supervision of a plant, and providing technical and management services. Usually they work as team leaders with a group of biologists and chemists, actively involved in working out the theoretical scaling up, finding a suitable process for commercial production, considering the cost, safety and environmental concerns for their design and operation.
As biotechnology is a fast advancing field, a biochemical engineer should consistently update their knowledge and skill to keep up with the emerging technologies. A firm grasp on computerized process controls, computer assisted drafting programs and an above average data analysing ability will be an added advantage. The job profile and compensation package will depend on the level of qualification, specializations and extensive work experience in the field. Job openings for biochemical engineers come up wherever there is a chemical or biological conversion. Some examples are biotechnology firms, food and beverage, agriculture and chemical industries, waste management, petroleum oil and gas field, biomedical firms, engineering design companies, pharmaceutical companies, construction companies and environmental agencies. The long-term career potential is in fact boundless, with the growing fields of biomedicine, genetic engineering, etc. One can choose a suitable career path according to individual interests, either in research and development, or in the production area.
In short, we can say that a biochemical engineer is basically a chemical engineer who has immense knowledge about the basics of life science and biotechnology. Discovery of new biotech products happen almost every day in research labs. But the most important part is the scaling up of the bioprocess and its safe and economic execution in a bioreactor (or fermenter) under favourable and controlled growth conditions, to produce the desired product. The extraction of the product from the reaction mixture, its separation and purification is yet another significant step in obtaining the final product in its pure form.
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