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Biochemical Engineering at UCL

Biochemical Engineering at UCL is an interdisciplinary subject which has as its primary focus the fundamental issues that underpin the translation of biological discoveries such as new kinds of advanced medicines into practical outcomes. In this way biochemical engineers can contribute immensely to improving the quality of life. In the next decade and beyond, the contributions of biochemical engineers to the national and international community will be vital not only in the area of new medicines but also for more nutritious foods, novel materials from renewable sources and improved approaches to reducing and dealing with environmental pollution.

The Department of Biochemical Engineering at UCL is the largest university department of its kind in the UK; its graduate degree programmes lead to qualifications which are internationally recognised. Taught Master’s programmes and research study programmes in the department draw on knowledge and methods derived from a range of disciplines, including biochemistry, microbiology and molecular biology as well as the core discipline of biochemical engineering in which the foundation subjects are applied and integrated.

There are close teaching and research links with over 100 scientists and engineers working in other departments at UCL, including Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Computer Science, Physics and Astronomy, Electronic and Electrical Engineering and Chemical Engineering, together with experts from other departments throughout the UK and overseas. A recent collaboration with London Business School and the establishment of a Centre for Scientific Enterprise now allows the integration of technical and business skills at all levels. Links with industry are exceptionally close. These interactions with a range of disciplines and companies help to create a vibrant department at the forefront of the field, and an exciting environment in which to study.

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History of the Department

In the 1930s Jack Drummond, the first UCL Professor of Biochemistry, succeeded in isolating pure vitamin A. To do this however, he needed large quantities of fish liver oils and later, wheat germ. Drummond was helped by Maxwell Donald, a young process engineer and lecturer in Chemical Engineering at UCL. So began the linkage of departments that created the Department of Biochemical Engineering. By the 1950s, Donald was a Professor and Head of Department. He worked with Ernest Baldwin, Head of Biochemistry, to establish a joint Diploma, later a Master’s programme, in Biochemical Engineering at UCL. Donald also worked closely with visionary biologists Eric Crook and Pat Clark at UCL to scale up new biological discoveries. Crook and Donald helped launch Biotechnology and Bioengineering, the subject’s first journal, in 1959, and a UCL staff member, Fife Webb, wrote one of the field’s first monographs.

Malcolm Lilly, a student of Professor Pat Clark, and Peter Dunnill, a student of Sir Lawrence Bragg (the father of molecular biology and hence of modern biotechnology) joined the department in the 1960s. At UCL, Lilly and Dunnill combined their interests and worked closely to isolate large quantities of commercially unavailable enzymes. An early outcome of their pioneering research, that shaped the future of biochemical engineering, was their work on penicillin acylase and its use for the production of the first semi-synthetic penicillin. Twenty years later Malcolm Lilly and Peter Dunnill became the first Professors of Biochemical Engineering in the UK.

In 1991 UCL was chosen as the UK’s Interdisciplinary Research Centre (IRC) for Biochemical Engineering. This interdisciplinary role has been maintained with the creation of The Advanced Centre for Biochemical Engineering (ACBE). The establishment of the ACBE allowed the department to plan a unique set of pilot-scale capabilities embracing the ‘whole bioprocess’ concept with the B3 containment needed to allow the full range of ‘genetically engineered’ materials to be safely studied at scale. The ‘whole bioprocess’ approach represents the central theme of biochemical engineering at UCL within which all the teaching and training programmes are provided. In 2001 UCL was chosen by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) as an Innovative Manufacturing Research (IMRC) Centre. As the central research theme of the department has developed, the study of whole bioprocesses has expanded to embrace related ‘business processes’. These include issues of validation and regulatory requirements and also entrepreneurial activities which underpin the establishment of small, high-tech venture companies.

UCL pioneered biochemical engineering education in the UK and has provided the process industries with first-class future leaders. The department has a unique national and international network of industrial contacts and alumni which help it to maintain its position at the forefront of education and research.

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Research and Training Facilities

The department has one of the most modern biochemical engineering teaching facilities in the world. Constructed and extended through the 1990s at a cost of approximately £20 million, the facility is able to attract leading industrial collaborators for the department’s research and training programmes. The department’s training facilities comprise superb pilot plant and instrument resources for scale-up studies of genetically engineered material. The facilities include a range of mechanically agitated and airlift fermenters up to 450 litre-scale, linked via mass spectrometers and other instruments to a computer suite. These bioreactors are matched by a range of state-of-the-art, pilot-scale downstream processing equipment and analytical instruments which allow the staff in the department to provide training in the bioprocessing of genetically engineered materials.

A recent further investment of £4 million has been made to establish the world’s first Centre for Micro Biochemical Engineering. This is equipped with the latest automated robotic systems to enable more rapid process discovery and the characterisation of recombinant biocatalysts. For more information please see Department's Resources.

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Sources of financial support for both UK/EU and overseas students are detailed in the booklet Sources of Funding for Graduate Students, included in the UCL Graduate Applications Pack. Details of tuition fees and estimated maintenance costs are given in UCL’s Graduate School Prospectus or Guide to Graduate Study. These publications are available from UCL’s Admissions and General Enquiries Office.

Admissions and General Enquiries Office
University College London
Gower Street
Tel: 020 7679 3000
Fax: 020 7679 3001

Typically 20-25 awards are made each year for graduate studies in the department at PhD/EngD or MSc level. Graduates with undergraduate or Master’s degrees in a wide range of science and engineering disciplines are eligible for such awards.

UCL is a major recipient of funding for graduate training from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), The Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

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The information contained in this booklet is believed to be correct at the time of going to press, but no guarantee can be given that it will not be amended before the commencement of, or during, the degree programmes to which it refers.


This page last modified 18 January, 2006

Department of Biochemical Engineering - University College London - Gower Street - London - WC1E 7JE - Telephone: +44 (0)20 7679 7031 - Copyright © 1999-2005 UCL

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