An apparatus and method for the large-scale and continuous production of gel beads containing a biocatalyst. The apparatus is a columnar system based on the chemical cross-linking of hydrocolloidal gels that contain and immobilize a biocatalyst, the biocatalyst being a microorganism or an enzyme. Hydrocolloidal gels, such as alginate, carrageenan, and a mixture of bone gelatin and modified alginate, provide immobilization matrices that can be used to entrap and retain the biocatalyst while allowing effective contact with substrates and release of products. Such immobilized biocatalysts are generally formulated into small spheres or beads that have high concentrations of the biocatalyst within the gel matrix. The columnar system includes a gel dispersion nozzle submerged in a heated non-interacting liquid, typically an organic liquid, that is immiscible with water to allow efficient formation of spherical gel droplets, the non-interacting liquid having a specific gravity that is less than water so that the gel droplets will fall through the liquid by the force of gravity. The heated non-interacting liquid is in direct contact with a chilled upflowing non-interacting liquid that will provide sufficient residence time for the gel droplets as they fall through the liquid so that they will be cooled below the gelling temperature and form solid spheres. The upflowing non-interacting liquid is in direct contact with an upflowing temperature-controlled aqueous solution containing the necessary chemicals for cross-linking or fixing of the gel beads to add the necessary stability. The flow rates of the two liquid streams can be varied to control the proper residence time in each liquid section to accommodate the production of gel beads of differing settling velocities. A valve is provided for continuous removal of the stabilized gel beads from the bottom of the column.
This invention was made with Government support under contract DE-AC05-84OR21400 awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy, Advanced Bioprocessing Concepts Program to Martin Marietta Energy Systems, Inc. and the Government has certain rights in this invention.