• Liquid-Liquid Extraction
    In Downstream Processing
    Stages of Bioprocesses


Downstream Processing

Downstream-processing in bioprocesses concerns the ways in which output streams (e.g. solid, liquid, slurry etc.) are handled and the means for the recovery and purification of the targeted products. It is a crucial step in bioprocess development that is often overlooked, especially in early stages of research and development, where much of the focus tends to be on optimizing the bioconversion process itself. This is a critical oversight given that downstream processing can account for a large portion (sometimes up to 80%) of the total production costs, particularly in processes dealing with dilute concentrations of the target product or complex mixtures.

Importance in Bioprocesses

Giving due focus to downstream processing in bioprocess development can not only lead to better product recovery and quality but also to significant cost savings and improved sustainability. This is especially important in processes concerning the valorisation of lignocellulosic feedstocks, where the complexity of the feedstock and the need for high-purity end products can make the downstream process a significant factor in the overall economic viability of the process.

Click below to read more about bioprocess development for downstream processing activities.

Get more info...Downstream Processing

Liquid-Liquid Extraction


Liquid-Liquid Extraction (LLE), also known as solvent extraction, is a a process where a solute (or solutes) is transferred from one liquid phase to another. This transfer is driven by the difference in solute solubility between the two liquid phases. The two liquid phases are generally immiscible or partially miscible. One phase is typically water-based (the aqueous phase), while the other is an organic phase.

The fundamental principle behind LLE is based on the partition coefficient (K), also known as the distribution coefficient. The partition coefficient is a measure of how a solute distributes itself between the two phases. It is defined as the ratio of the concentration of the solute in the organic phase to its concentration in the aqueous phase at equilibrium. The higher the partition coefficient, the greater the preference of the solute for the organic phase. Thus, the selection of an appropriate organic solvent is critical in LLE. Ideally, the solvent should have a high partition coefficient for the desired solute and a low partition coefficient for any impurities.

During Liquid-Liquid Extraction, mass transfer occurs in two stages. In the first stage, the solute molecules move from the bulk of the aqueous phase to the aqueous-organic interface. In the second stage, the solute molecules cross the interface and move into the bulk of the organic phase. This transfer is driven by the concentration gradient across the interface, which is established by the difference in solute solubility between the two phases.

At the end of the extraction process, the two phases are separated. The organic phase, now enriched with the solute, can be further processed to recover the solute. The aqueous phase, depleted in solute, can be discarded or treated to recover any remaining solute.

Sometimes, a single extraction step may not be sufficient to extract the desired amount of solute. In such cases, multi-stage extraction can be used, where the aqueous phase is contacted with fresh organic solvent in a series of extraction stages. Alternatively, a counter-current extraction process can be used, where the aqueous phase and the organic solvent flow in opposite directions through a series of extraction stages. This can greatly increase the extraction efficiency.

Important Aspects in LLE

  • Solvent Selection - The choice of solvent is crucial as it affects the efficiency of the extraction. The solvent should be able to selectively extract the desired product while leaving impurities in the aqueous phase. The solvent should also be non-toxic, have low volatility, be readily available, be cost-effective, and be easy to remove from the product. The solvent should also preferably have a low environmental impact.
  • Partition Coefficient - The partition coefficient determines how the solute distributes between the organic and aqueous phase. A high partition coefficient means the solute prefers the organic phase, leading to a more efficient extraction. The partition coefficient is a function of the solute, the solvent, and the temperature.
  • pH and Ionic Strength - The pH and ionic strength of the solution can have a significant impact on the extraction efficiency, especially for ionizable compounds. Adjusting the pH can convert a compound into its charged or uncharged form, influencing its partitioning behavior.
  • Temperature - The temperature can influence the solubility of the product in the solvent and thus the partition coefficient. However, higher temperatures can also increase the solubility of impurities and may cause thermal degradation of heat-sensitive compounds.
  • Contact Time - The amount of time the two phases are in contact with each other can affect the extraction efficiency. A longer contact time can allow for more complete extraction, but also potentially more co-extraction of impurities.
  • Agitation - Agitation helps to disperse one phase into the other, increasing the interfacial area for mass transfer and thus the extraction efficiency. However, excessive agitation can lead to the formation of stable emulsions, complicating phase separation.
  • Scale-up Considerations - The process must be scalable, i.e., it should work not just on a lab-scale but also on a pilot or industrial scale. Scale-up often leads to changes in the process dynamics, such as mass and heat transfer rates, which can affect extraction efficiency.
  • Equipment Design - The design of the extraction unit can influence the extraction efficiency. The unit should promote good phase dispersion and easy phase separation.
  • Environmental and Safety Considerations - The environmental impact of the process should be minimized, including the emissions and waste generated. Safety considerations, such as the flammability and toxicity of the solvent, should also be taken into account.
  • Economic Considerations - The overall cost-effectiveness of the extraction process should be evaluated, considering not just the direct costs (such as the cost of the solvent and energy) but also indirect costs (such as the cost of solvent recovery and waste disposal).

Advantages of Liquid-Liquid Extraction

  • Selectivity - LLE can be highly selective for the desired compound, especially if the appropriate solvent is chosen. This selectivity can lead to high purity and yield of the product, reducing the need for further purification steps.
  • Scalability - LLE is a process that can be easily scaled up, making it suitable for industrial applications. From laboratory to industrial scale, the principles remain the same, thus facilitating the transition from small to large scale.
  • Simplicity - LLE is relatively straightforward and does not require complex equipment or advanced technical skills. This simplicity can lead to cost and time savings.
  • Versatility - LLE can be applied to a wide range of solutes, including those that are heat-sensitive or have a high molecular weight. This versatility makes LLE a useful tool in many different bioprocessing contexts.
  • Efficiency - LLE can be very efficient, especially when optimized for factors like solvent choice, temperature, and contact time. High extraction efficiencies can minimize the amount of feedstock required and the waste produced.
  • Continuous Operation - LLE processes can be designed for continuous operation, which is more efficient and economical than batch operation. Continuous operation also allows for easier automation and control.
  • Low Energy Requirement - Compared to other separation techniques like distillation, LLE generally requires less energy because it does not rely on phase changes.
  • Preservation of Biomolecules - As LLE operates at low temperatures, it is particularly beneficial when the product of interest is sensitive to heat. It helps maintain the integrity of such biomolecules, ensuring a higher-quality product.

Disadvantages of Liquid-Liquid Extraction

  • Solvent Selection - Finding the right solvent can be challenging. The solvent should selectively extract the desired product while leaving unwanted compounds in the aqueous phase. Furthermore, the solvent must be safe to use, environmentally friendly, and economically feasible.
  • Solvent Recovery - After the extraction, the solvent must be removed from the extracted product, which could require additional steps such as distillation or evaporation. These steps can add complexity, cost, and potentially degrade heat-sensitive compounds. Moreover, losing solvents in the process can increase operation costs and environmental impacts.
  • Emulsion Formation - Intense mixing can lead to emulsion formation, where tiny droplets of one liquid are dispersed in the other liquid. Emulsions can be difficult to break and can significantly slow down the phase separation process. Emulsions can also lead to product loss if not properly handled.
  • Extraction of Impurities - Depending on the solvent and conditions used, undesirable compounds could be co-extracted with the target product. This could lead to additional purification steps being required.
  • Limitations with Polar Compounds - LLE may not be efficient for the extraction of highly polar compounds, as these compounds may prefer to stay in the aqueous phase.
  • Risk of Product Degradation - Some solvents or conditions may lead to degradation of the target product, particularly if the product is sensitive to organic solvents.
  • Environmental Impact - The use and disposal of organic solvents pose environmental concerns. Solvents should be recovered and recycled as much as possible, but there is usually some loss in the process.
  • Safety Concerns - Many organic solvents are flammable, volatile, or toxic, posing safety hazards that must be managed carefully.

Liquid-Liquid Extraction - Facilities and Services at Celignis

At Celignis we can integrate the use of Liquid-Liquid Extraction as a downstream processing step in a larger bioprocess project. We can also work with clients on specific bioprocess activities focused on Liquid-Liquid Extraction. For example, we can receive a liquid stream from a client and design a project around recovering the target compounds using Liquid-Liquid Extraction.

Contact Celignis Bioprocess

With regards to the use of Liquid-Liquid Extraction, and other downstream technologies, within a bioprocesses, the Celignis Bioprocess team members with the most experience in undertaking such projects are listed below. Feel free to contact them to discuss potential projects.

Lalitha Gottumukkala

Founder of Celignis Bioprocess, CIO of Celignis


Has a deep understanding of all biological and chemical aspects of bioproceses. Has developed Celignis into a renowned provider of bioprocess development services to a global network of clients.

Oscar Bedzo

Bioprocess Project Manager & Technoeconomic Analysis Lead


A dynamic, purpose-driven chemical engineer with expertise in bioprocess development, process design, simulation and techno-economic analysis over several years in the bioeconomy sector.

Dan Hayes

Celignis CEO And Founder

PhD (Analytical Chemistry)

Dreamer and achiever. Took Celignis from a concept in a research project to being the bioeconomy's premier provider of analytical and bioprocessing expertise.