Sunday, June 28, 2009


In the business of fermentation, simple solutions are often the answers to some of the major fermentation problems. The answers do not lie in complicated apparatus or academic research papers in eminent journals. A good example is the use of air locks!

The success or failures of many fermentation processes depends often on:
1 Releasing the pressure of fermentation gases to prevent excessive in built pressure
2 The maintenance of anaerobic conditions or excessive exposure to oxygen.

But in most cases these factors are often over looked!

A good example of the airlock is found in the design of toilet bowl. The water seal is sort of airlock but more towards the prevention of odours and the crawlies from crawling up as you are doing your job.

The use of airlocks is only practicable for mixed culture fermentations such as those in food fermentations, wine fermentation

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Thursday, June 18, 2009


In aerobic biological wastewater treatment, the supply of oxygen is of great critical importance. It is one of the parameters that is mandatory and heavily relied upon to assess the efficiency of wastewater treatment. However it is one of the parameters that must be approached with the greatest caution as many wrong conclusions could be reached by wrong interpretation.

The importance of oxygen could not be denied as it is the indicator for the ability of the system to support life or whether the treatment system is properly functioning. The values of 2mg/litre have generally been accepted as the minimum concentration to support aerobic life. Below which the system is anaerobic.

I can always see how many engineers, chemists and even consultants are very excited prematurely to see if their WWTP registered a dissolved oxygen (DO) of about 4 mg/lit and declaring “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!”

If only they stop the * Drum rolls!* *Applause!* Thunderous claps! * * Cheers!* and * Confettis!*

There is the possibility that something could be wrong if you register too high DO. You can only reach definite conclusions in conjunction with other observations or studies to support you

A high DO could be the result of various factors such as:
1 System too toxic to support life
2 The absence of microorganisms
3 Low number of microorganisms
And a few other causes

So before celebrating, and making hasty conclusions please analyse the other parameters or at least observe the situation over a few weeks analyses

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009


It is very exciting when you are called to determine what causes a wastewater treatment plant to malfunction. Sometimes the reasons are too obvious, but sometimes the cause may be complex and require some sort of detective work such as in the popular television series “Criminal Scene Investigation” or CSI. There are evidences every where and it is up to us the wastewater forensic team to determine the cause and put it right!

When a wastewater treatment plant fails it is providing us with various valuable clues to why the process fails. Analyses of the evidences from physical, chemical and microbiological observations will be able to inform us why the WWTP fails.

To repair the WWTP without doing proper clinical studies of the stuck WWTP is not scientific, time and money wasting and would not lead to the proper solution.( Unless chances in a million you are lucky enough!)

WWTP failures do not occur just like that. There must be a reason for the failures to occur. Usually failures take time to occur, and if the WWTP is monitored closely you will see signs of the impending failure. To this purpose records or data of the WWTP are very important.

Biological WWTP is a very complex system. Almost anything could go wrong, so proper approach in determining the cause of failure is important to treat the WWTP

The approach to determine the cause of malfunction must be approached with an open mind.

The first step in the investigation often involved digging into the background and history of the WWTP, discussions with the production and engineering staff.

Water audit and process flow in and out of the WWTP are essential

Site visits are very important to determine the real situation. Only a trained eye or experience will allow you to detect the anomalies that could have contributed to the failure.

Analyses of the past and present water treatment operation data are essential

Sometimes not only in situ or separate analyses are required, experiments or laboratory studies are needed to confirm the cause.

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At the end of the construction of the WWTP, and before officially handing over from the contractors to the company, the WWTP is usually subjected to the commissioning of the plant.

In most cases it involves the easier part of civil, electrical and mechanical engineering to see that the plant follows the specifications laid, and that the various equipments are functioning such as the pumps, blowers, motors.

This is usually the easiest part of commissioning and easy to see if there are any defects or replacements needed.

The most challenging part of the commissioning process is to see whether the built WWTP can function and treat the wastewaters to the standards of effluent required.

The period of commissioning can be short or even a few months to achieve depending on whether the process is complicated or the process of commissioning are properly carried out.

If the commissioning fails or take a long time to carry out then the handover will be delayed and so will be the stages of payment to the contractor. If it is carried out fast and successful the payment will be fast and a lot of money will be saved for labour and time. As for the owner it would mean that the WWTP could enter the service faster.

There are a few objectives in carrying out the commissioning procedure:

1 It will ensure the owner that the WWTP built is in compliance and can achieve the standards set
2 The process will allow detecting any possible errors
3To fine tune the process of the WWTP to be process efficient
4 To subject the WWTP to stress test to see its safety factor and range it can tolerate to treat wastes. This acts like guarantee!

Commissioning of biological WWTP is not as simple as just pushing the power supply button and let it the WWTP operates. It is a process where data needs to be monitored and collected for the duration of commissioning. These data will act as evidences that the commissioning of the WWTP is successful or not.

In most cases the WWTP designed might not function as expected from the blueprints. So experts are needed to commission the WWTP and suggest ways of overcoming the obstacles from which the engineers will take the necessary recuperative actions

Commissioning of WWTPs require long periods on site monitoring and adjustments. In most cases the failure to commission the WWTP is not so much due to the fault of the WWTP design but poor understanding of the process of commissioning and the process of wastewater treatment

Commissioning WWTP is a scientific operation which should be able to identify the steps of process failure taking steps to make it right. One of the most biggest and frequent blunder carried out by engineers or plant operators during commissioning is to pump the raw wastewaters as if the treatment plant is already 100% functional. No wonder most times it is not because the WWTP do not worked as designed but more due to failure of start up procedures and commissioning

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Sunday, June 14, 2009


It was recently reported in The Star (Saturday June 6, 2009) that according to Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister Datuk Peter Chin Fah Kui
“On a related matter, he said the ministry was drafting a working paper on its suggestion to close the 4,394 small sewage treatment plants and replace them with larger regional plants.
Chin said small plants were uneconomical as IWK would have to send maintenance teams periodically to oversee them.
He said he would discuss this with the Housing and Local Government Ministry, Department of Environment, Economic Planning Unit and Kuala Lumpur City Hall.”
So before we go rushing into projects where even angels fear to tread, let us study the consequences involved and choose the right option. Wastewater plants are not cheap to build and operate. They are a source of myriad of problems if not properly designed or operated.
There are the advantages and disadvantages of both options. It all really depends on various factors such:
1 Location of the population
2 Size of population to be served
3 Composition and complexity if the wastewaters
The trend is however nowadays building small wastewater treatment plants, decentralizing and serving up stream.
The problem with our existing wastewater treatment plants is not whether it is centralized or decentralized, but poor servicing and monitoring of the process. A refurbished and reserviced wastewater treatment plants can improve by 40% in efficiency compared to before servicing.
Through my experience, I have always found out that waste treatment plants are not properly cared for. Their performance not monitored, to make things worst their aerators are either not working or purposely switched off to save costs. Wastewater treatment plant operators only try to work their treatment plants if the environmental officers are after them.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009


My love for fermentation technology or more specifically fermentors, start with my disillusionment with biology. I have studied biology for a substantial amount of my school and undergraduate days in the sixties and seventies. The biology syllabus both in schools and universities never really did change or keep up with times. It has always been taxonomy, biodiversity, anatomy etc etc.

Right from lower secondary schools to preuniversity and even university it is always the repeating chants of..”xylem, phloem, antipodal cells…………..” Repeating the Latin names of flowers and plants and insects… Yughhhhhh!!!

The point of crossing in my life came accidentally. ( Or was it destiny??) It was the day when my science teacher told me about the wonders of microbes or germs!. (Guess he didn’t know much what he was talking about then!!!..hehehe) . But he did arouse my curiosity! I just cant avoid wondering how something so small and cant be seen got so much power to cause diseases and make beer?. Wow!! That was really something and mind blowing!

During my final or Honours year, I recalled being taken on an industrial visit to a monosodium glutamate factory, brewery and even a conventional wastewater treatment plant! Wow! Was I impressed by the scale of the stainless steel fermentors and the capacity of microorganisms to produce the fermentation products. From that moment in time I was smitten in love with fermentors!. You can never realized how a simple field trip can leave you with a lasting impression more than the hours spent in lecture halls and laboratories

By the end of my undergraduate years I was very sure that Industrial microbiology or more precisely fermentation technology will be the obsession of my life.

I decided to pursue Industrial microbiology at the Wolfson Laboratory for Industrial Microbiology at the Department of Microbiology. During that circa, the Department of microbiology was in the era that has become to many la belle epoque of Cardiff microbiology . There were the giants of industrial microbiology at the department such as Prof DE Hughes who headed the department with illustrious staff such as EC Hill, DA Stafford, JWT Wimpenny, AG Callely, strong names in industrial microbiology.

Activities of the Wolfson Laboratory for industrial microbiology, including with Mr Ted Hill, some of the earliest work on bioremediation of oil spillage in coastal waters (Torrey Canyon Disaster, off the Cornish coast in 1967). Over the next decade this group pioneered the scientific study of large scale anaerobic digestion treatment plants for the treatment of farm and domestic wastes and the recovery and use of methane.

The department have strong contacts and research grants with various industries ranging from wastewater treatment to even petroleum microbiology.

Fermentors were the in thing in the department then. Wimpenny studied oxygen metabolism, cellulose production and gradstat using the fermentors. Stafford was using fermentors to study anaerobic digestion. Hughes was studying Sphaerotilus natans using fermentors. Hill was studing oil degradation with fermentors

Till today fermentors still fascinate me as it did years ago…..!!!

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Sunday, June 7, 2009


Most people often have the idea of commercialization of the fish sauce fermentation from the level of a small cottage industry to a large manufacturing concern. They seem to think that the whole process of translation from a cottage to a large fermentation industry is smooth sailing. In reality it is more complex not only at the level of increasing the scale of manufacturing the budu fermentation but to the level of increasing the market demand and successful marketing.

I always feel very sad when I see some new ventures or projects failed. Such failures will leave very devastating impacts on the investors or entrepreneurs. Lots of investments in terms of money, energy and hope will be thrown into the wind. At the same time I just can’t help feeling very angry and disappointed with these entrepreneurs. Had they done proper studies on the technical and economic viability of the projects, such catastrophes could have been avoided. Maybe they do not listen to advice or worst they listened to the ‘wrong advice’.

They should have their business plan on paper first. Business plans are decision-making tools. There is no fixed content for a business plan. Rather the content and format of the business plan is determined by the goals and audience. A business plan should contain whatever information is needed to decide whether or not to pursue a goal. They should not be rushing into the projects without doing proper studies and background research.

There are many questions that need to be answered before embarking on such projects. It is very important at this early stage to be critical of the project and to find what possibly could go wrong rather than dreaming that the project will be smooth sailing and guaranteed to succeed.

During this stage of planning ‘allowances’ must be made for contingencies or unexpected changes.

Preparing a business plan draws on a wide range of knowledge from many different business disciplines: finance, human resource management, intellectual property management, supply chain management, operations management and marketing among others..

It can be helpful to view the business plan as a collection of sub-plans, one for each of the main business disciplines.[

If the proposed project failed on paper then high chances are that the business will fail in reality. At least failing on paper would not incur much collateral damages such as costs of investments.


Fish sauce fermentation is a traditional food fermentation industry. It is often carried out on small scale or the backyard industry. Very few of the fish sauce industries are carried out at industrial scale in Thailand. Thailand is the major global producer for fish sauce.

The key element in this industry is the availability of fishes which are used as the substrate for fermentation. Different countries or manufacturers use different type of fish for the fish sauce fermentation

With the stock of fish dwindling down, it is risky at present to carry out fish sauce fermentation, unless you are willing to go for alternative supply of cheaper fishes. There was a time years ago when anchovies used for fish sauce fermentation is plenty and cheap. During those days the anchovies are the poor man’s diet. But not now!. Anchovies are expensive and even the poor man can’t afford it

In the economics of fish sauce fermentation it is important that the industry is run continuously and efficiently to be viable. We cannot have most of the times workers and machines being idle.

In Malaysia making fish sauce is mainly in the realms of small scale cottage industries. Production is viable to service local or regional demands. The method of fish sauce produced by these small cottage industries is often not geared for high volume production.

1 Fermentation Technology is passive
2 Non mechanized or automated
3 More of free time industries
4 Fermentation is too long from six months to more than a year

One of the hallmarks of business of manufacturing is to produce the products at the lowest cost while still making profits. Lowering the price will make it attractive to consumers and reduce or eliminate competitors of the same products. This can only be achieved if the volume of production is higher thus the cost of producing the unit price will be lowered. In fermentation this would mean involving bigger fermentation capacity which is not normally achieved in small cottage industries

Just how popular are the fish sauce? In Malaysia, fish sauce or budu are only highly regarded by people in the East coast or originating from East coast. Will their number be sufficient to make the business of fish sauce fermentation economically viable?

As fish sauce is an acquired taste it might be difficult to penetrate the European countries or United States. These countries too are very stringent regarding the standards and quality of how the sauce is manufactured. I doubt many will pass through the stringent barriers of GMP, HACCP and QC control. It should be clean and free of possible pathogens


Yes! Fish sauce is an excellent product and has potential to succeed in global market. However, in order to succeed there need to be visible improvements in the production process, packaging and marketing

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Thursday, June 4, 2009


There are many fermentation technology workshops being carried out here and around the world. Since fermentation technology workshop is basically a academic business venture, profitability and viability of the fermentation technology workshops are important consideration to determine if the workshop is a success or failure as a business project. (Unless we consider the fermentation technology as a free public service, then it is a different story!)

Conducting of fermentation workshops could initially be seen as a business transaction between the “seller” and “buyer”. The seller is the party conducting the workshop and the buyer is the customer or client of the workshops

The seller will provide:
1 Laboratory facilities such:
Laboratories working space, laboratory facilities and equipments
inclusive of the various services

2 Laboratory consumables such as chemicals, media, laboratory
coats, protective mask, goggles and safety helmets

3 Array of fermentation equipments and ancillaries from upstream to
downstream depending on the type and specificity of costs

4 Arrangement for site visits inclusive of transportation if included

5 Teaching staff that include lecturers, consultants, facilitators and
support technical staff

6 Lecture halls and tutorial rooms plus all facilities for teaching such
as notes, stationeries

All these items must be itemized for costing. That includes:
1 Capital cost of equipments
2 Salaries and allowances

With regard to lodging and accommodation these are other factors which must be considered, usually the organizers will provide a list of hotels for the participants to choose and make their own arrangement

The critical points to be considered are:
1 Number of days of the course
2 Number of participants
3 Break point of profitability

It is not cheap to conduct such courses, unless you are willing to forgo profits or get the courses heavily subsidized or sponsored by the government or university for public relations exercise.

Fermentation technology workshops are not like the business, motivational, how to pass examination or even Feng Shui talks. These talks, workshops or seminars are conducted to large masses in hotels and are really pricey! Yet people are willing to come to these talks hoping for new ideas and they are willing to pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of attending such talks. Fermentation technology workshops are different. They are usually few registrants to the workshops. The investment in capital equipment for the fermentation technology workshop is high. So what is the right price to charge participants at fermentation technology workshops?

Even though there is a low number of participants for fermentation technology workshops, one should come up with a very reasonable charge or fees for the very expensive equipments used. Fermentors are very expensive equipments and are easily damaged by improper use or little care. The electrodes themselves are easily damaged by improper use or accidents. Some of the damages are cumulative and will not be detected immediately after the workshops. In the end the Department has to bear for the expensive repair and maintenance of the equipment. If you don’t take these factors into considerations the organizers themselves will end up paying more for the meager charges obtained in attending the workshops. In business this is called a losing venture. There must be business acumen in running these courses

It is simply ridiculous to rent or use the expensive fermentors at RM200 or RM300 daily. Car rentals are easily obtained at that price. Mind you the cars are cheaper!

I guess the clients of the workshops are happy and laughing their way to the bank! Its dirt cheap to pay at that price to attend the fermentation workshops!. (The organizers are happy too because they can proudly show their list of clients. He he he !!!)

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Monday, June 1, 2009


I have recently come across this interesting write up in the local paper KOSMO ( dated 2 June 2009 about a local entrepreneur getting involved in fish sauce fermentation or Budu fermentation.

Budu is a fish sauce fermentation which basically uses anchovies as the main fish for the fermentation. The fish sauce is very popular or almost idolized by the people from the state of Kelantan and Trengganu.

The fermentation process basically involves the adding of certain proportion of salt to water to the fish in the fermenting vat. Depending on the producer the budu fermentation might take up to a few months.

The quality of the fish sauce depends on a lot of factors such as the type of fish being used, the proportion of salt being used, duration of fermentation and of course the acidity of the fermentation process. There are of course variations in the recipes for budu fermentation depending on each manufacturer

I find this article to be interesting because:

1 It is the first grand attempt to produce budu on a large or industrial scale using large fermentation tanks.

According to the article the initial fermentation were carried out in in cement tanks or fibre glass tanks. There are about 20 fibre glass tanks 1.2 metre high and 2 metres wide.

At the end of about 6 month fermentation, the fermented fish sauce are kept in containers as shown below before being processed and bottled up

2 Since the budu fermentation is relying upon the supply of anchovies the process of fermentation could only be carried out between June to November when the anchovies are in abundant supply. From December to May are for cooking filtering and bottling the budu sauce


Budu is one of the diversity of fish sauces fermented or produced in the region such as Thailand and Vietnam. The basic fermentation process is the same all though there could be variations in the type of fishes used and the recipes followed.

In general budu is more a cottage industry and supplies the local consumption

Attempts to scale up the fermentation process to industrial scale are often hampered by:

1) Lack of demand for the products as budu is an acquired taste
2) Competition from similar products produced by other countries
3) Budu is considered a slow and passive fermentation process which technically would not fit the criteria of industrial fermentation
4) The supply of anchovies is seasonal and limited and the fish is widely used in everyday cooking making it costly to produce budu
5) In most of the cottage industries fermentation, GMP and HACCP are very difficult to be adhered to

The viability of budu and its transformation into a large scale industry need to be properly studied before going all out.

We need to know important data such as:
1 What are the rate limiting steps in the budu fermentation industries
2 Better fermentor or bioreactor design for budu fermentation
3 To carry out better marketing and sales plan to convince the public
4 Carry further scientific research to improve the quality of budu sauce
5 Need better GMP and HACCP established procedures
6 Consistency and high quality in the final product especially using SOP


As previously mentioned the budu or fish sauce is not the sole proprietary rights of Malaysian budu makers. There are similar products produced by Thailand, Vietnam and even Philipines. If the budu fermentation industry is to survive and expand it must be able to compete with the other fish sauce manufacturers. Sadly to say in this aspect our budu fermentation industries are not ready to compete with the budu global market. They need to improve and be competitive and be at par with the other countries fish sauce industries.

It doesnt take a lot of convincing where we are by just visiting a few of the budu industries to see where we are. Reality bites!

One of the most important thing in the budu industry is not so much as increasing the volume of production but to bring real QC or qualuty control of international standards into our budu industries.

The subject of QC covers every aspect of budu fermentation right up from the upstream activities to the downstream processing when the budu is bottled or packed. In the application of QC in the budu industries we cannot rely on the art of budu fermentation and the skill acquired from father to son alone. We have to go technological and scientific in our approach. There is no such thing as half hearted effort. It must be an all out change for Quality

Quality control starts with the step of getting the substrate of the fermentation itself, ie the fish or anchovies. For high quality budu you need to use the best, the freshest or the highest quality anchovies.

The manufacturing process facilities of the budu fermentation must be very hygienic and comply with good manufacturing practice (GMP). Sanitation standard of the place must be of the highest standard and in no way the manufacturing facilities look like a dump or a workshop!Every component of the manufacturing process which includes the machines, equipments and even the budu fermentors must be GMP approved. Just building a few fire glass fermentation tanks or concrete tanks would not be sufficient to convince

In the GMP of budu fermentation it is of utmost importance that things like personal hygiene of workers be considered. There should not be any free acess of pests or rodents or any unwanted visitors that might find its way into the premise or even the fermentation vats. The quality of water used in the fermentation must be monitored. Cleaning and washings including the use of disinfection of the floor and facilities should be carried out regularly. Waste disposal issues must be addressed.

Strict quality control programme must be implemented so as not to allow products of suspected quality to go through

Since budu is a food and a popular one too, the international food standard or (CODEX), HACCP must be followed. Only then can we be assured that the industry has met international standard and can face global market

The quality of the final product must be assured by quality control.This is important as then our customer will feel safe and reassured. In view of this the QC department must ensure that the product comply with the requirements of the various regulating bodies such as the ministry of health. The QC lab must be equipped with the right equipment and qualified staff to carry this work

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