ILS Automation integrates mass flow control with industrial communication protocols into bioreactors

Many pharmaceutical and agricultural products, biofuels, and biochemicals are produced in a fermentation process similar to the way beer is made. Biotech and chemical research companies that make such products need to accurately control the amount of each gas that is fed into the process.

One such company is ILS Automation, specializing in OEM and systems integration for bioreactors. ILS supplies precise control hardware and software to the fermentation, cell culture, and biofuel industries.

The challenge: Reliable, accurate control that is easy to integrate

For ILS, there is no such thing as a “standard” solution. One challenge they have faced is finding accurate, reliable mass flow controllers (MFCs) that can be easily integrated into their customized bioreactor systems.

Each solution is specified to meet the individual requirements of the particular bioreactor vessel and process being used by the customer. One vessel may be a two-liter glass container, whereas another may be a stainless steel tank that holds thousands of liters. Operating pressures also vary, with biotechnology customers tending to need much lower pressures than those in the chemical sector.

Beyond gas control, ILS systems maintain temperatures to within 0.1 degrees while also controlling pH, dissolved oxygen levels, and other parameters specific to each customer’s recipe.

Solution: Mass flow controllers with industrial communication protocols

In 2009, ILS began using Alicat MFCs because they were compatible with ILS’s sophisticated SCADA software, Batch Expert+. Today, Alicat supports a variety of industrial communication protocols, including DeviceNet, Modbus-RTU and TCP/IP, Ethernet/IP, EtherCAT, and PROFIBUS. This has helped ILS integrate and connect to smart devices, moving along their transition to the Industrial Internet of Things.

Jeff DeCicco of ILS Automation with a bioreactor

“As customers develop and commercialize a product, they need solutions that meet their performance and operational expectations, and we recommend Alicat equipment to customers as an intrinsic piece of the solution. Alicat solutions always work, and we have lots of happy customers as a result. They know that we stand by what we sell and that we wouldn’t recommend anything that could possibly cause us problems later. We trust Alicat, as it always delivers.”

 – Jeff DeCicco, engineer at ILS

ILS prefers digital communications to analog signals, because digital protocols can handle the multiple parameters reported by Alicat instruments – pressure, temperature, volumetric flow, and mass flow. They have used Alicat MFCs in more than two dozen unique designs over the past few years, using digital interfaces to communicate with the programmable logic controller (PLC). The device’s integrated LCD display provides additional benefit, allowing for visual verification of the instrument’s activities without having to dig through the PLC’s data.

What about rotameters?

When flowing a single gas like air, volumetric rotameters have historically been the go-to solution. When feeding multiple gases into a bioreactor at precise ratios, MFCs can be a better option. For example, if a bioreactor full of organisms is designed to generate carbon dioxide as an off-gas, separate MFCs can control the feeds of gas molecules to get the right balance as the organisms multiply: two oxygen atoms for every carbon atom. A mass flow meter placed on the outlet can then quantify the total amount of carbon dioxide that has been produced.


According to ILS engineers, incorporating Alicat devices has made integration easier and has given their customers what they need to successfully conduct experiments and production runs. ILS is always looking for ways to engineer better products for their customers, taking into account individual process needs. By working together with Alicat, ILS has been able to confidently make better and better products that help their customers do amazing things.

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M/MC mass flow meters and controllers that ship in just 3-5 business days.
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