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Scotch Whisky Research Institute

The aim of the project with the Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI) was to develop portable biosensors for use during whisky production to quantify important parameters such as phenols during fermentation and provide real time process quality control. Key to this was the design of the micro-chamber of the micro-fluidics system of the biosensor. A number of different micro-chambers were designed and assessed using an advanced computational multi-physics software (COMSOL) and finally an optimised micro-chamber design was accomplished, setting the foundation for further development. The project successfully improved the efficiency of the fermentation/distillation process through introducing in-situ monitoring, which will help whisky producing companies test their samples locally and be able to immediately decide the next stage of the process depending on the biosensor data.

This project represented an exciting opportunity to explore the use of new technology in the whisky making process, specifically fermentation. Current methods for sugar analysis are reliant on central labs where the kit can be expensive and portable biosensors may be able to circumvent these issues.

Mr Matthew Gordon
Research Scientist, SWRI

Scotch Whisky Research Institute’s needs

Currently, the quantification of phenols is performed using expensive and time-consuming laboratory-based analytical techniques such as UV spectroscopy and chromatography of a single sample from the fermentation vessel, which is not totally representative. SWRI needed to collect data during the process at the distillery and not have to transport samples, which could alter or damage them. This is particularly important for samples collected at the start of fermentation process. Consequently, there is high demand for reliable, portable, low-cost biosensors for the fermentation process to provide improved process control, quality improvement and cost reduction, especially for small industries.

Open University Laboratories

The Knowledge Transfer Voucher Project

Dr Sotiria Psoma from The Open University’s (OU’s) School of Engineering and Innovation worked with Dr Barry Harrison and Dr Matthew Gordon from the SWRI to develop this biosensor application for the whisky industry. SWRI shared advice to Dr Psoma on the details of the process and the properties and characteristics of the samples. A feasibility study focused on the “proof of concept” and a prototype biosensor for the monitoring, control and optimisation of the fermentation whisky was developed. The project team investigated and evaluated the utilisation of micro-chambers for optical in-situ biosensors for monitoring levels of phenols in smoked whisky during the fermentation/distillation process. A number of micro-chambers were designed and systematic simulation experiments were carried out. A number of parameters were investigated and evaluated in order to identify the optimum micro-chamber and assess the effectiveness of latest advances in the optical micro-biosensor field.

This Knowledge Transfer Voucher offered me the great opportunity to develop a successful collaboration with the SWRI to support the whisky industry by exploring the use of portable in situ biosensors for monitoring the fermentation process. I am extremely excited to have benefitted them through applying our technology.

The Open University’s Dr Sotiria Psoma
Lecturer in Electronic Engineering, Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

Project benefits

The whisky industry accounts for about 75% of Scotland’s food and drink exports and almost a quarter of the UK’s. The combined scientific knowledge and expertise of the team and the OU’s specialised facilities contributed to the success of developing this innovative idea and strengthened the OU/SWRI collaboration. SWRI and Dr Psoma successfully applied for an OU Innovation grant to further develop and implement the micro-biosensor across the whisky industry. This will hopefully result in significant improvements to the production process giving the industry, which directly employs 11,000 people in Scotland and three times that through its supply chain, a competitive advantage.

About SWRI

The Scotch Whisky Research Institute is the whisky industry’s Research & Technology Organisation. SWRI’s remit is to ensure sustainability of the industry and its supply chain, improve process efficiency and help protect the category. It does this by undertaking a comprehensive programme of pre-competitive and applied research, from barley to bottle. SWRI is tasked with identifying and evaluating new technologies that may offer benefits to its members. This may be by identifying established technologies used in other sectors and applying them to whisky production or by helping develop specific technologies for the industry. Additionally, SWRI develops new processes based on its own fundamental research to address specific challenges and continually monitors advances in all areas of science to identify opportunities that will benefit its members.