The production of polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) with mixed microbial cultures is a promising approach for the sustainable production of bioplastics. Usually a two-step process is employed consisting of (i) the enrichment of a PHA producing mixed culture in a sequencing batch reactor (SBR) and (ii) the subsequent PHA production in a fed-batch reactor. Both reactors are highly dynamic systems, particularly if the SBR is working at low sludge residence times (SRTs) or if growth is (partly) permitted in fed-batch systems. Under these conditions the concentrations of substrate, PHA and biomass change rapidly, complicating the identification of biomass specific conversion rates as required for process characterization. We developed a structured approach for the evaluation of such SBR and fed-batch experiments consisting of five steps: (1) Measurement of a sufficiently large set of parameters including off-gas concentrations, (2) Corrections of measurements for effects of sampling and addition of liquids (pH control, substrate), (3) Calculation of oxygen uptake and carbon dioxide evolution rates, the latter including inorganic carbon dissolved in the liquid phase, (4) Balancing of the measured conversions, (5) Evaluation of the measurements by means of a metabolic model. This approach has been successfully applied to a large number of data sets. Steps 1-4 ensured that data sets of high quality were obtained. Step 5 allowed to find the best estimates for all conversions and biomass specific rates for the measured data sets, while complying with material balances. Conversions of the substrate acetate, the nitrogen source ammonia and of the storage polymer PHA (here polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB)) were described very accurately by the model. Modeled off-gas conversions often deviated somewhat from measured conversions, which might be partly due to an inaccurate model stoichiometry. Nonetheless, the described approach proved to be a very useful tool for the evaluation and comparison of PHB producing cultures.
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