A batch of single-cell protein has been produced using electricity and carbon dioxide in a joint study by the Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.
Protein produced in this way can be further developed for use as food and animal feed. The method releases food production from environment-related restrictions as the protein can be produced anywhere renewable energy -- such as solar energy -- is available, the researchers said.
"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," VTT principal scientist Juha-Pekka Pitkänen explained.
Along with food, the researchers are developing the protein to be used as animal feed. The protein created with electricity can be used as a fodder replacement, thus freeing up land area for other purposes, such as forestry. The process would allow food to be produced where it is needed.
"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 fertilizer-like nutrients is 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," LUT professor Jero Ahola added.
Tenfold energy efficiency
According to estimates by the researchers, the process of creating food from electricity can be nearly 10 times as energy efficient as common photosynthesis, which is used for cultivation of soy and other products. For the product to be competitive, the production process must become even more efficient. Currently, the production of 1 g of protein takes around two weeks using laboratory equipment that is about the size of a coffee cup.
The next step the researchers are aiming for is to begin pilot production. At the pilot stage, the material would be produced in quantities sufficient for development and testing of fodder and food products. This would also allow for commercialization.
"We are currently focusing on developing the technology: reactor concepts, technology, improving efficiency and controlling the process. 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 commercialization depends on the economy," Ahola said.
"In the long term, protein created with electricity is meant to be used in cooking and products as it is. The mixture is very nutritious, with more than 50% protein and 25% carbohydrates. The rest is fats and nucleic acids. The consistency of the final product can be modified by changing the organisms used in the production," Pitkänen explained.
The study is part of the wide-ranging Neo-Carbon Energy research project carried out jointly by LUT and VTT. The aim of the project is to develop an energy system that is completely renewable and emissions-free. The "Food from Electricity" study is funded by the Academy of Finland and runs for four years.