The Finnish company Solar Foods wants to grow bacteria using carbon dioxide from the air and hydrogen produced by renewable energy. The bacteria can then be used to make a powder that is rich in nutrients. This process provides nutrients more efficiently than growing plants.
Agriculture is exhausting the planet. But there might just be a more environmentally friendly option for feeding ourselves: using renewable energy to turn carbon dioxide into food.
“This is becoming a reality,” said Pasi Vainikka, CEO of Solar Foods. The company is building the first factory that can produce food on a commercial scale from CO2. They have chosen a location near the Finnish capital Helsinki. This factory can produce 100 tons a year, which is equivalent to about four to five million meals, Vainikka says. “We are a little behind schedule, but production can start in 2023.”
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There is no doubt that we must find ways to produce food in a greener way. Conventional farming – including organic farming – damages the environment in many ways. It requires a lot of land, which leads to deforestation and endangers animals, and it often requires huge amounts of water, which can lead to the drying up of lakes and rivers. It is also responsible for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions on Earth. In addition, other pollutants are also released, such as nitrates, which lead to uninhabitable zones in lakes and oceans.
Normal farming is not very efficient either. Crops usually convert less than 1 percent of the energy they receive from light into usable biomass. If we then also feed those plants to animals for meat, it is even less efficient.
Solar Foods therefore wants to bypass the entire process of photosynthesis. They will grow bacteria that will serve as food. In addition, they want hydrogen as a sustainable energy source.
Sustainable electricity will be used in the factory to break down water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen will be put in large barrels where bacteria can grow together with the CO2 and ammonia to the required carbon and nitrogen respectively. Part of CO2 according to Vainikka, will come from the air near the visitor center at the factory. The rest will come from industrial sources.
Exchange of animals
The end result: a yellow powder called Solein made from bacterial cells. The powder consists of 70 percent protein and can be used in all kinds of food: from meat substitutes to breakfast cereals and snacks. For example, it could also replace the eggs in noodles and pasta. “Our goal is to replace animal proteins, which we believe have the greatest impact on the environment,” says Vainikka.
Solein was already approved as a food ingredient in Singapore last October. Now the company is still waiting for approval in the EU, UK and USA.
Land, water and carbon dioxide
Compared to vegetable crops, Solein uses 100 times less water per kilogram of protein and 20 times less soil. Even the land needed for energy production has been counted. It also emits CO2 one fifth of normal crops according to Solar Foods. Compared to beef, a kilo of protein from Solein requires 600 times less water and 200 times less land, again including the land for energy production, whereby CO2emissions are 200 times less, the company said.
In addition, there are other advantages: The factories can be located anywhere in the world. The harvest will also not fail if extreme weather conditions occur.
“The fact that Solar Foods and other companies are carrying out their projects on a larger scale shows that we are at the beginning of a new agricultural era,” says Dorian Leger of Connectomix Bio in Germany. “These are exciting trends that will lead to improved food security globally and can help to deflect the carbon curve.”