The alcoholic beverages that can be produced by fermentation vary widely, depending primarily on two factors—the plant that is fermented and the enzymes used for fermentation. Human societies use, of course, the materials that are available to them. Thus, various peoples have used grapes, berries, corn, rice, wheat, honey, potatoes, barley, hops, cactus juice, cassava roots, and other plant materials for fermentation. The products of such reactions are various forms of beer, wine or distilled liquors, which may be given specific names depending on the source from which they come. In Japan, for example, rice wine is known as sake. Wine prepared from honey is known as mead. Beer is the fermentation product of barley, hops, and/or malt sugar.
Early in human history, people used naturally occurring yeast for fermentation. The products of such reactions depended on whatever enzymes might occur in "wild" yeast. Today, wine-makers are able to select from a variety of specially cultured yeast that control the precise direction that fermentation will take.
Ethyl alcohol is not the only useful product of fermentation. The carbon dioxide generated during fermentation is also an important component of many baked goods. When the batter for bread is mixed, for example, a small amount of sugar and yeast is added. During the rising period, sugar is fermented by enzymes in the yeast, with the formation of carbon dioxide gas. The carbon dioxide gives the batter bulkiness and texture that would be lacking without the fermentation process.
Fermentation has a number of commercial applications beyond those described thus far. Many occur in the food preparation and processing industry. A variety of bacteria are used in the production of olives, cucumber pickles, and sauerkraut from the raw olives, cucumbers, and cabbage, respectively. The selection of exactly the right bacteria and the right conditions (for example, acidity and salt concentration) is an art in producing food products with exactly the desired flavors. An interesting line of research in the food sciences is aimed at the production of edible food products by the fermentation of petroleum.
In some cases, antibiotics and other drugs can be prepared by fermentation if no other commercially efficient method is available. For example, the important drug cortisone can be prepared by the fermentation of a plant steroid known as diosgenin. The enzymes used in the reaction are provided by the mold Rhizopus nigricans.
One of the most successful commercial applications of fermentation has been the production of ethyl alcohol for use in gasohol. Gasohol is a mixture of about 90% gasoline and 10% alcohol. The alcohol needed for this product can be obtained from the fermentation of agricultural and municipal wastes. The use of gasohol provides a promising method for using renewable resources (plant material) to extend the availability of a nonrenewable resource (gasoline).
Another application of the fermentation process is in the treatment of wastewater. In the activated sludge process, aerobic bacteria are used to ferment organic material in wastewater. Solid wastes are converted to carbon dioxide, water, and mineral salts.
Baum, Stuart J., and Charles W. J. Scaife. Chemistry: A Life Science Approach. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, Inc., 1975, Chapter 28.
Brady, James E., and John R. Holum. Fundamentals of Chemistry. 2nd edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1984, p. 828A.
Loudon, G. Mark. Organic Chemistry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
David E. Newton