Scientists Say They Can Create Protein “From Thin Air”
Finnish scientists say they’ve produced a protein “from thin air” that they believe will be able to compete with soybean-derived products on price within the next decade. Solar Foods makes Solein by extracting CO₂ from the air using carbon-capture technology and then combines it with water, nutrients, and vitamins to promote a fermentation process similar to the one for wine or beer production.
The protein is made using a proprietary bacteria that is fed a diet of CO₂, hydrogen, and other nutrients. This process, known as “carbon fermentation” or “precision fermentation,” takes place in huge vats and produces a liquid that is removed and dried to yield the final product ― a yellow flour-like powder with multiple foods uses. According to those that have tried it, the protein powder has no flavor at all, just as the scientists intended.
The inventors see it acting as a neutral additive for all sorts of foods, such as a substitute for palm oil, which is used as a binder in baked goods. It could also work as an ingredient in plant-based meat alternatives, serving as a substitute for ingredients like pea and soy protein. The inventors say it can also be used as a medium for growing cultured meat or fish. They also see potential in bringing protein production to areas whose climate or ground conditions make conventional agriculture impossible. What’s more, it can be 3D-printed to give it more texture.
The hydrogen used is derived by splitting it from water using electricity. If the electricity used for production stems from solar or wind power, the researchers say the new “food” can be grown with near-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Another key ingredient, CO₂, is obviously all around us and considered a major driver of climate change.
It also requires far less water than traditional agriculture. Solar Foods says just 2.6 gallons of water is needed for every 2.2 pounds of Solein. To produce the same amount of soy requires 550 gallons of water, a figure that rises to more than 3,300 gallons for 2 pounds of beef.
The technology is still in the early stages but Solar Foods is aiming to have a demonstrator plant opened by 20222. Once the demonstrator is up and running, a limited amount of the protein could be launched to the market, said CEO Pasi Vainikka. The final development stage would be to build a full-scale factory, which could be completed by 2025 if all goes to plan. According to Solar Foods, they’ve attracted around 5.5 million euros (USD$6.12 million) in investment so far and expect their costs to roughly match those for soybean production by the end of the decade.
Some are touting the technology as a “game-changer” or calling it a “planet saver.” Vainikka has outright said that one of his goals is to completely disconnect food production from agriculture. Research by the think tank RethinkX, which forecasts the implications of technology-driven disruption of many kinds, suggests that proteins derived using precision fermentation will be around 10 times cheaper than animal protein by 2035. It forecasts the result will be the near-complete collapse of the livestock industry.
Vainikka is obviously positive but says “one needs to be a realist,” noting it’s impossible to predict when or if Solein may become a key part of our food system. There’s also the fact that people like eating real meat and it seems hard to fathom that everyone on the planet is going to give up beef for protein powder printed in the form of steak. It does seem like a natural fit for things like protein shakes and yogurt and I can also see it denting demand for palm oil if it is adopted by the food industry. Just remember, everyone discounted faux-meat when it first started generating headlines and it’s now the fastest-growing sector in the food industry.
One area where you can readily see Solein’s potential as a real “game-changer” is space travel. The idea for Solein actually began at NASA during the 1960s and 1970s when researchers were exploring ways to feed astronauts over long journeys. Scientists discovered particular single-cell organisms that, when fed carbon dioxide, oxygen, and nitrogen from the air, would output protein. Solar Foods is actually working with the European Space Agency to develop foods for off-planet production and consumption.
Solar Foods has a couple of other competitors, too. Probably the most direct rival is California-based Kiverdi, as they’re the only other company using gas fermentation to make protein meant to go into marketable foods. They are also hoping to have a commercial-ready product within the next five years. But Solar Foods seems to be slightly further ahead in certain ways – it has already started pre-engineering on its factory, and has applied for a novel food license in order to legally sell its ingredients in Europe. Learn more from their website HERE. (Sources: BBC, Big Think, Food Navigator)
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