New University of Adelaide professor Robert Falconer aims to use pharmaceutical engineering principles and expertise in protein chemistry to find quality gains in beer brewing and improved technology for wine-making.
Based in the university’s School of Chemical Engineering and Advanced Materials, Professor Falconer is the University’s first professor of bioprocess engineering.
“What I want to do is take ‘quality by design’ principles developed for pharmaceutical manufacturing and apply them to agriculture and food, wine and beer processing so, for instance, we can measure and guarantee malting barley quality to the benefit of grower, merchant, maltster and brewer,” says Professor Falconer. “Brewing is a personal fascination of mine. If we can closely identify the quality attributes in malting barley we can dictate the finished quality of beer.”
Born in Adelaide and brought up in Armidale, NSW, Professor Falconer returns to the University of Adelaide after having done a PhD there in the 1990s.
It was during his PhD that he established his first connections with the South Australian wine community, learning about the issues of protein-haze caused by unstable proteins in white wine and the problems of bird-pecked grapes which can cause sourness in wine if not removed at harvest.
He’s had a variety of jobs around the world: in biotechnology with companies Biotech Australia and GroPep; in medical diagnostics in the US; at the University of Cambridge on protein refolding and self-assembly of virus-like nanoparticles; at University of Queensland researching protein stability; and at the University of Sheffield working closely with the pharmaceutical industry on applications combining protein chemistry and engineering.
It was researching infra-red sensors at Cambridge that produced a ‘eureka moment’ on the earlier bird-pecking problem.
“I suddenly realised that if we could detect bad grapes from their colour, we could remove the rotten grapes automatically from the harvest,” Professor Falconer says. Three hundred wineries are now using colour-sorting instruments around the world.
Later at the University of Queensland his protein research group, while mainly concentrating on biopharmaceutical applications, identified the key protein causing heat-induced hazes in white wine. Winemakers use bentonite clay to remove the haze but it’s a crude process and can lead to flavour issues.
“The Australian Wine Research Institute has done a lot of work on alternatives to bentonite but it’s still widely used in the industry,” says Professor Falconer. “Elimination of bentonite from wine-making should be achievable – we need to be able to show alternatives work and that they are economical. That translation role is one I’m hoping to play – doing the economic analysis and getting new technology and processes adopted by industry.
“Proteins are proteins – whether we’re looking at the stabilisation of proteins for industrial enzymes or in pharmaceuticals, or stability of wine proteins – the concepts and ideas from one can be applied to the others,” he says.
While at Sheffield University, Professor Falconer transferred some of his ideas from winemaking to beer brewing, identifying which chemicals are associated with flavours and their precursors in malt.
Historically, most of Professor Falconer’s work has involved bringing disciplines together.
“At Adelaide, I’m hoping to help build further links between Engineering and our AgriFood and Wine people – it’s a natural fit between the research I want to do and the work already going on at Waite and other areas of the University,” he says. “And, of course, working closely with the wine and brewing sectors. Working together in this way, we can make significant gains.”