UCL Department of Biochemical Engineering


What is Biochemical Engineering?

Biochemical engineers translate exciting discoveries in life sciences into practical materials and processes using biology to make products we all need, such as medicines and fuels

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What problems are biochemical engineers trying to solve?

Biochemical engineers are key players in the greatest biomedical challenges that lie ahead including:

  • can we make medicines more cheaply and quickly
  • how to make food more efficiently and with less energy
  • are there ways to make biofuels and new materials that don’t rely on oil as a raw material?
  • how do we take innovative healthcare products, such as stem cells and gene therapy, from discovery to being widely available?

What is Biochemical Engineering?

Biology is amazing at transforming one chemical to another, Biochemical Engineering is the harnessing of this process to make products on an industrial scale. One of the earliest examples was brewing where humankind took grain and water and used yeast to change it into beer. Over the last hundred years the challenge has been translating discoveries into processes, such as taking an exciting discovery like antibiotics and finding a way to manufacture them on a large scale. Without a viable way of making antibiotics quickly, safely and cheaply they would never have saved as many lives as they have.

What do biochemical engineers do?

Biochemical engineers design ways of getting cells to do make or do what they need them to, and then to obtain the product in a way that is useful. The cells could be from animals, bacteria or single-celled animals like algae, each type needs to be treated in a different way to get them to do what is needed.

Taking the manufacture of a vaccine as an example, here are some of the questions we need to answer: 

  • how can we grow the cells
  • how do we keep them alive
  • how can we get them to make the vaccine
  • what’s the best way to the vaccine out of the cells
  • how can we separate what we want from what we don’t
  • can we do all this safely, efficiently and cheaply enough for people to afford it

Without the answers to these questions, the vaccine isn’t a viable medicine as it could be too expensive to make, not work properly or take too long to reach people.
But this is just the beginning. 

What is the future of Biochemical Engineering?

We believe the twenty-first century will be the era of Biochemical Engineering, taking over from the age of petrochemicals. New advances in areas such as cell and gene therapy and synthetic biology mean we can design cells, bringing new therapies and processes to make the medicines and materials we need.

Find out more about our research or our programmes of study