A bioreactor may refer to any device or system that supports a biologically active environment. In one case, a bioreactor is a vessel in which is carried out a chemical process which involves organisms or biochemically active substances derived from such organisms. This process can either be aerobic or anaerobic. These bioreactors are commonly cylindrical, ranging in size from some liter to cube meters,and are often made of stainless steel.
A bioreactor may also refer to a device or system meant to grow cells or tissues in the context of cell culture. These devices are being developed for use in tissue engineering.
On the basis of mode of operation, a bioreactor may be classified as batch, fed batch or continuous.
Bioreactor design is quite a complex engineering task. Under optimum conditions the microorganisms or cells are able to perform their desired function with great efficiency. The bioreactor’s environmental conditions like gas (i.e., air, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide) flowrates, temperature, pH and dissolved oxygen levels, and agitation speed/circulation rate need to be closely monitored and controlled.
Most industrial bioreactor manufacturers use vessels, sensors, controllers, and a control system, networked together for their bioreactor system, see programmable logic controller (PLC).
Fouling can harm the overall sterility and efficiency of the bioreactor, especially the heat exchangers. To avoid it the bioreactor must be easily cleanable and must be as smooth as possible (therefore the round shape).
A heat exchanger is needed to maintain the bioprocess at a constant temperature. Biological fermentation is a major source of heat, therefore in most cases bioreactors need water refrigeration. They can be refrigerated with an external jacket or, for very large vessels, with internal coils.
In an aerobic process, optimal oxygen transfer is perhaps the most difficult task to accomplish. Oxygen is poorly soluble in water -and even less in fermentation broths- and is relatively scarce in air (20.8%). Oxygen transfer is usually helped by agitation, that is also needed to mix nutrients and to keep the fermentation homogeneous. There are however limits to the speed of agitation, due both to high power consumption (which is proportional to the cube of the speed of the electric motor) and the damage to organisms due to excessive tip speed.
Industrial bioreactors usually employ bacteria or other simple organisms that can withstand the forces of agitation. They are also simple to sustain, requiring only simple nutrient solutions and can grow at astounding rates.
In bioreactors where the goal is grow cells or tissues for experimental or therapeutic purposes, the design is significantly different from industrial bioreactors. Many cells and tissues, especially mammalian, must have a surface or other structural support in order to grow, and agitated environments are often destructive to these cell types and tissues. Higher organisms also need more complex growth medium.