WASHINGTON — As brewers look for new and inventive flavors for their beers, a new robotic breakthrough could also speed up the process that gets beer onto store shelves. Researchers in the Czech Republic have created “BeerBots,” which are capable of actually speeding up the fermentation process that produces beer. In what takes brewers up to a month now could one day take beermakers a fraction of the time and also cut down on the chances of the product spoiling before reaching customers.
The research team describes these BeerBots as self-propelled, magnetic packages of yeast. They’re able to make the fermentation process go faster while also removing the need for a filter to capture yeast at the end of brewing. Instead, scientists can just pull the tiny robots out of the beer with a magnet.
Why does beer take so long to make?
When it comes to making beer, brewers first extract sugars from grains like malted barley to create a watery solution called wort. Next, yeasts ferment the sugars, which converts them into alcohol, carbon dioxide gas, and new flavor compounds. However, that step alone can take up to four weeks to complete. At the same time, it’s possible for unwanted microorganisms to sneak in and spoil the beer with sour flavors.
The Czech team looked at prior studies which theorized that scientists could encapsulate the yeast in protective capsules — lowering the chances of beer spoiling and also speeding up fermentation. Study author Martin Pumera and the team created two-millimeter-wide BeerBot capsules by combining active yeast, magnetic iron oxide nanoparticles, and sodium alginate from algae.
They then dripped the mix into a ferric chloride solution. Pumera’s team also made one side of the spheres porous by exposing half of the BeerBot to an alkaline solution in an electrochemical cell.
In tests with beer, the bots bob up and down as they ferment sugar and produce carbon dioxide bubbles that propel them upward. When the BeerBots reach the surface, they release carbon dioxide into the air and then sink again. Results show this process ferments sugar faster than using free yeast cells as normal brewers do. Once the beer runs out of sugar and the fermentation stops, these bots just sink to the bottom of the container, waiting for a magnet to scoop them up.
“Additionally, the collected BeerBots were active for up to three more wort fermentation cycles. Based on these results, the researchers say that BeerBots could produce tasty brews faster,” the researchers conclude in a media release.
A brief timeline of the history of beer brewing:
9500-8000 BCE: Early evidence of beer brewing can be traced back to this period, during which the Neolithic Revolution took place. Beer is believed to have been made from barley and other grains in ancient Mesopotamia and Sumeria.
3900 BCE: Researchers find the first written evidence of beer in a Sumerian poem dedicated to the goddess of beer, Ninkasi.
3000-2000 BCE: Beer brewing spreads throughout ancient Egypt. Egyptians brew various types of beer, including some made with dates and pomegranates. The consumption of beer is widespread, from pharaohs to workers.
1200-800 BCE: Beer brewing starts in ancient Europe. The Celts and Germans develop their own methods and recipes for making beer.
100-400 CE: The Roman Empire adopts beer brewing from the Germanic tribes they conquered. Beer becomes popular throughout the Roman Empire.
800-1000 CE: Monasteries in Europe start to brew beer, both for their own consumption and to sell to the local population. They become significant centers of brewing knowledge and innovation.
1516: The Reinheitsgebot (German Beer Purity Law) is enacted, stating that beer can only be made from water, barley, and hops. This law aimed to preserve the quality of beer and protect consumers.
1600s-1700s: The Industrial Revolution brings about improvements in brewing technology, such as the steam engine and the thermometer. These innovations lead to increased production and better quality control in the brewing process.
1800s: The invention of the microscope enables brewers to better understand yeast’s role in fermentation, leading to improvements in the brewing process.
Late 1800s: Refrigeration is introduced, making it possible to brew and store beer in a controlled environment, paving the way for large-scale commercial brewing.
1920-1933: Prohibition in the United States leads to the closure of many breweries. However, homebrewing and underground beer production continue.
Late 20th Century: The craft beer movement takes off, starting in the United States and spreading across the world. A renewed interest in traditional brewing techniques and experimentation with flavors leads to a boom in microbreweries and brewpubs.
The new invention appears in the journal ACS Nano.