Grant advances biochemical engineering laboratory

09/22/04

The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology has received a $110,000 grant from the Aberdeen-based Great Plains Education Foundation to continue developing a biochemical engineering laboratory on campus. The laboratory will support Tech's chemical engineering focus area in biochemical engineering that prepares students for careers in value-added agriculture and other industries.

Renovations to the existing biochemical engineering laboratory will include modern biology benches and cabinetry, new flooring and a new biological hood. The renovations will provide a clean, low-contaminant environment for the transfer of microbial cultures in student fermentation experiments. The grant also will be used to acquire a new pilot-scale fermentation vessel that will demonstrate problems with mixing, aeration, cooling and sterilization associated with the scale-up of microbial fermentations.

"This laboratory will help students learn the skills they need to enter the food, pharmaceutical, bioethanol and bioremediation industries," Dr. Patrick Gilcrease, assistant professor, Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, said. "We will provide undergraduates an intense level of hands-on experience normally reserved for training of graduate student researchers."

The most basic definition of biochemical engineering is the application of chemical engineering to biological systems. Biochemical engineers work in the ethanol industry, they design biological systems for environmental remediation, they engineer improvements to pharmaceuticals and they work in other areas that combine biochemistry, microbiology and chemical engineering.

Chemical Engineering students at Tech interested in biochemical engineering take a series of courses that cover all those areas. They augment that with experience in the biochemical engineering laboratory.

Biochemical engineering holds excellent promise to generate and sustain economic development in South Dakota. In fact, it already has, through ethanol plants that have popped up in eastern South Dakota. Several chemical engineering graduates from Tech work in these plants, bringing valued-added benefits to the farmers of South Dakota.

"South Dakota is an agricultural state," Gilcrease said. "Biochemical engineering takes what farmers produce and turns it into other useful products that have more value than the crops themselves. It gives farmers one more way to market what they grow."

Tech's biochemical engineering initiative also has received major equipment support from Cargill, as well as scholarship support from Broin and Associates, a Sioux Falls-based company.

"Industrial supporters of this program have emphasized the importance of hands-on training with fermentation systems," Gilcrease said. "Our graduates will have a competitive advantage in this field as a result of their biochemical engineering laboratory experiences."

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