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This year's Y-Prize winners have harnessed microdroplet technology to vastly improve the fermentation process in the production of beer. 

Three Wharton and Engineering students have discovered a way to drastically speed up beer brewing, winning $10,000 in the process.

Wharton and Engineering graduate students Alexander David, Shashwata Narain and Siddharth Shah recently won the Y-Prize Competition by finding a unique way to apply Penn research to a commercial problem — making the beer brewing process at least three times faster. In addition to the monetary award, the team has also won the commercial rights to use the technology in their new company, Fermento.

The Y-Prize — which is sponsored by Penn Engineering, the Mack Institute for Innovation Management, Wharton Entrepreneurship and the Penn Center for Innovation — challenges students to find innovative commercial applications for Penn technology.

This year teams were presented with three options of new technological advancements made at the University. The Fermento team chose microdroplet technology developed by Bioengineering professor David Issadore.

Microdroplets are currently being developed for medical purposes because they are able to deliver very precise doses of a liquid drug to a very precise location in the body. However, after speaking with various students with brewing experience, local breweries and even a Wharton professor with experience as a microbrewer, the Fermento team saw a different kind of potential for its use.

“We realized that fermentation was a fairly long process in the beer production industry, and so based off of that we decided to look more deeply into food processing, and specifically how this microdroplet technology could improve fermentation as a whole,” Narain said.

One of the most painstaking steps of beer production is the fermentation process, which can take up to three weeks. During this time, yeast metabolically converts the sugar in barley and other grains into ethanol. A precise blend of yeast and boiled grain liquid called "wort" is needed to get the fermentation process just right.

Too many yeast cells can stress the cell population and reduce the already-slow reaction rate. The amount of sugar available to these yeast cells is also limited because the cells don’t consistently interact with the sugar molecules when they are combined in large-volume amounts, which is how beer is usually processed.

The precision of microdroplet technology allows yeast to directly be introduced to wort in a perfect ratio each and every time.

Currently, the Fermento team is in the process of adjusting and perfecting their technology and vision for the company and eventually hope to expand their services to larger beer-making companies. They believe that with the new technology, companies will be able to decrease costs in production and increase profits overall.

“The team chemistry has also been great,” Shah said. “The whole idea of integrating an industry that hasn’t really seen innovation...really piqued our interest and getting to achieve this and make this product has been a very satisfying experience."

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