Addressing scaling challenges of bioreactor sparging using mass flow control

Addressing scaling challenges of bioreactor sparging using mass flow control

This article was originally published in Fluid Handling Pro on June 29, 2021. Read the original article here.diagram showing bioreactor sparging using mass flow controllers
Every bioreactor sparging system is designed for the introduction of oxygen to feed cell cultures. Meanwhile, the system must remove carbon dioxide to prevent toxic buildups that would damage the cells.

Various bioreactor features and components are critical to optimize these processes: spargers, impellers, baffling, and bioreactor shape all, interdependently, affect mass transfer.. Here we will focus on the use of spargers in bioreactors and discuss technological challenges of micro and macro spargers, as well as pulse-modulated sparging as a solution.

Background: Regulating oxygen & carbon dioxide levels in bioreactors

Smaller bioreactors can effectively distribute oxygen and strip carbon dioxide without spargers. However, these measures are inadequate for larger bioreactors, where the lower surface-area-to-volume ratio leads to carbon dioxide accumulation and prevents oxygen penetration. Spargers are therefore necessary to introduce oxygen and remove carbon dioxide.

Oftentimes, systems are equipped with both micro and macro spargers to serve diverse process needs. The larger bubbles produced by macro spargers can effectively remove dissolved CO2 from solution, but require stronger agitation to dissolve and introduce oxygen into the system. Micro spargers introduce much smaller bubbles which dissolve easily, but are too viscous to disperse effectively throughout the bioreactor without excessive agitation which would introduce damaging shear stresses.

As such, macro spargers may be used primarily for carbon dioxide removal and to introduce oxygen into areas of the reactor which are physically farther from the sparger, while micro spargers are used in tandem to effectively deliver dissolved oxygen to the cells.

Challenge: Bubble features determine O2 mass transfer & CO2 stripping rates

Bubble formation and size significantly affect how oxygen will disperse throughout the bioreactor. The features of the bubbles are significantly influenced by factors such as pore size and distribution, sparger material, flow rate, liquid and gas properties, and local pressures.

The bubbles produced by micro spargers are micron-sized, spherical, and surface tension is the dominating force as they move through the bioreactor. They therefore have a high residency time in the reactor, which is an advantage for oxygen mass transfer but makes them ill suited to stripping carbon dioxide from the culture.

Macro spargers produce bubbles with diameters averaging 1-4 mm, with surface tension and buoyancy in the broth combining to affect their shape and movement. These bubbles have shorter residence times but dissolve less easily than smaller bubbles. However, macro spargers may also produce even larger bubbles, which are generally asymmetrical, with inertial forces dominating their behavior. These bubbles are prone to collapse without either dissolving or stripping carbon dioxide.

The shape and size of the bubble determines the amount of shear stress that the cells will experience, the effectiveness of CO2 stripping from the system, and the overall oxygen mass transfer rate to the cells. It is therefore important to optimize bioreactor spargers to ensure oxygen bubbles are evenly sized and distributed, and will not damage the cells.

Solution: Pulse modulated sparging using mass flow controllers

Pulse modulated sparging is a method of sparging by which engineers can best regulate bubble size and speed of release into the bioreactor. A low-flow mass flow controller slowly introduces oxygen into a porous sparger disc. The disc does not immediately release the gas. Instead, pressure builds up until it reaches a critical point, when the bubbles are gently released into the bioreactor.

Using this method of sparging, the oxygen mass flow rate can be adjusted to control the release rate of the bubbles into the bioreactor. The bubble size will remain uniform, as the holes in the sparger disc are small enough that bubbles will form predictable. This bioreactors sparging technology is therefore scalable across vessel sizes, with an oxygen transfer rate that is proportional to gas flow rate.

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