TAKE one serve of carbon dioxide. Apply high voltage. Wait a few weeks … and enjoy a meal of single-cell protein. It may not be a culinary delight, but it could feed our future.
The creation of artificial food out of thin air – with a few added microbes – is the result of a study by research groups in Finland.
And they say the Food from Electricity program is 10-times more energy efficient than the photosynthesis of plants.
Such protein powder is not about to garnish our plates, but it may soon be reducing the strain on our crops by providing an alternative source of fodder for animal feeds.
Researchers based in Finland created food using electricity, water, carbon dioxide, and microbes. The synthetic food was cooked up as part of a larger project, called Food From Electricity. The project is a collaboration between Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) and the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.
The technology creates a batch of single-cell protein that contains enough nutrition to replace dinner’s protein. Renewable energy powers the entire system.
While the food is safe for human consumption, the group is developing the protein for use as animal feed. The protein can be used as fodder replacement, and land can be released for other purposes, like forestry and farming of other foods.
One of the most impressive aspects of the project is the use of a mini-bioreactor that is portable. This food using electricity can be created on demand anywhere renewable energy (like solar or wind) is available. The process begins by exposing the raw materials to electrolysis in the mini-bioreactor. The reaction eventually produces a powder that contains more than 50% protein and 25% carbohydrates. The rest of the mixture is fats and nucleic acids. And as weird as it sounds, the texture is customizable by changing up the microbes used in the reactor.
Pitkänen says their next priority is to optimize the system. Currently, the coffee cup-sized bioreactor takes two weeks to produce 1 g of protein. He explains, “We are currently focusing on developing the technology: reactor concepts, technology, improving efficiency, and controlling the process.”
This innovative process can create food anywhere it is needed, which has huge implications for world hunger and climate change if the researchers can scale it up.
Juha-Pekka Pitkänen, Principal Scientist at VTT, says, “In practice, all the raw materials are available from the air. In the future, the technology can be transported to, for instance, deserts and other areas facing famine. One possible alternative is a home reactor, a type of domestic appliance that the consumer can use to produce the needed protein.”