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.
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.”
Science Behind Creating Food Using Electricity
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.”
Applications of the Project
While Pitkänen predicts that the technology will take 10 years to scale up the technology, the implications for this project are huge.
Starving humans who lack access to food due to their geographical location can create nutritious powder for themselves whenever they need it. The technology is portable across any environment, such as deserts and other famine-laden areas. The machine requires no special ingredients, so location isn’t important at all, says Jero Ahola, professor at LUT.
Ahola explains, “Compared to traditional agriculture, the production method currently under development does not require a location with the conditions for agriculture, such as the right temperature, humidity or a certain soil type. This allows us to use a completely automatized process to produce the animal feed required in a shipping container facility built on the farm. The method requires no pest-control substances. Only the required amount of fertiliser-like nutrients [are] used in the closed process. This allows us to avoid any environmental impacts, such as runoffs into water systems or the formation of powerful greenhouse gases.”
Another huge benefit this technology will yield is the reduction of global emissions. With the powder’s high protein content, food livestock and crops will become mostly unnecessary. As it stands, the meat industry emits between 14% and 18% of global greenhouse gases. Not to mention the amount of land required to feed an entire farm of hundreds of cows.
The Future of Food
The researchers claim that the process is nearly 10 times as efficient as photosynthesis. But scaling the technology requires increasing the efficiency even more. And the time length (2 weeks) to create 1 g of powder is too lengthy.
Pitkänen says, “Maybe 10 years is a realistic timeframe for reaching commercial capacity, in terms of the necessary legislation and process technology. In the long term, the [the] protein created with electricity is meant to be used in cooking and products as it is.”
The researchers want to begin piloting the process out for testing now. By producing the material in large enough quantities, researchers can develop and test fodder and food products. Eventually, slowly scaling the technology would make it fit for commercial purposes.
Ahola says, “Control of the process involves adjustment and modeling of renewable energy so as to enable the microbes to grow as well as possible. The idea is to develop the concept into a mass product, with a price that drops as the technology becomes more common. The schedule for commercialisation depends on the economy.”
The Food From Electricity project is part of the overarching Neo-Carbon Energy research project. LUT and VTT also execute the parent project. The Academy of Finland funds the Food from Electricity study, and it runs for four years. The project seeks to develop an energy system which is completely renewable and emission-free.
While we wait for this futuristic technology to launch, we’ll stick to using our OGarden for fresh fruits and veggies.