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Fermentation is a metabolic process that produces chemical changes in organic substrates through the action of enzymes. In biochemistry, it is narrowly defined as the extraction of energy from carbohydrates in the absence of oxygen. In the context of food production, it may more broadly refer to any process in which the activity of microorganisms brings about a desirable change to a foodstuff or beverage. The science of fermentation is known as zymology.

Along with photosynthesis and aerobic respiration, fermentation is a way of extracting energy from molecules, but it is the only one common to all bacteria and eukaryotes. It is therefore considered the oldest metabolic pathway, suitable for an environment that did not yet have oxygen. Yeast, a form of fungus, occurs in almost any environment capable of supporting microbes, from the skins of fruits to the guts of insects and mammals and the deep ocean, and harvests sugar-rich materials to produce ethanol and carbon dioxide.

Fermentative bacteria play an essential role in the production of methane in habitats ranging from the rumens of cattle to sewage digesters and freshwater sediments. They produce hydrogen, carbon dioxide, formate and acetate and carboxylic acids; and then consortia of microbes convert the carbon dioxide and acetate to methane. Acetogenic bacteria oxidize the acids, obtaining more acetate and either hydrogen or formate. Finally, methanogens (in the domain Archea) convert acetate to methane.

In ethanol fermentation, one glucose molecule is converted into two ethanol molecules and two carbon dioxide molecules. It is used to make bread dough rise: the carbon dioxide forms bubbles, expanding the dough into a foam. The ethanol is the intoxicating agent in alcoholic beverages such as wine, beer and liquor. Fermentation of feedstocks, including sugarcane, corn, and sugar beets, produces ethanol that is added to gasoline. In some species of fish, including goldfish and carp, it provides energy when oxygen is scarce (along with lactic acid fermentation).

In a batch process, all the ingredients are combined and the reactions proceed without any further input. Batch fermentation has been used for millennia to make bread and alcoholic beverages, and it is still a common method, especially when the process is not well understood. However, it can be expensive because the fermentor must be sterilized using high pressure steam between batches. Strictly speaking, there is often addition of small quantities of chemicals to control the pH or suppress foaming.

Fed-batch fermentation is a variation of batch fermentation where some of the ingredients are added during the fermentation. This allows greater control over the stages of the process. In particular, production of secondary metabolites can be increased by adding a limited quantity of nutrients during the non-exponential growth phase. Fed-batch operations are often sandwiched between batch operations.

In continuous fermentation, substrates are added and final products removed continuously. There are three varieties: chemostats, which hold nutrient levels constant; turbidostats, which keep cell mass constant; and plug flow reactors in which the culture medium flows steadily through a tube while the cells are recycled from the outlet to the inlet. If the process works well, there is a steady flow of feed and effluent and the costs of repeatedly setting up a batch are avoided. Also, it can prolong the exponential growth phase and avoid byproducts that inhibit the reactions by continuously removing them. However, it is difficult to maintain a steady state and avoid contamination, and the design tends to be complex. Typically the fermentor must run for over 500 hours to be more economical than batch processors.