How do we solve world hunger? For ages, that question has plagued scientists, economists, and world leaders alike, but here's one novel solution: take the ingredients out of thin air, add a little solar energy, and convert it into a highly nutritious protein. It sounds like pure science fiction—but that’s exactly what a team of forward-thinking Finnish researchers have accomplished this summer. Best of all, it’s not even made from bugs.
As the result of a collaborative study by the Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, scientists have developed a single-cell protein with the potential to eliminate world hunger. The yet-unnamed protein can be produced from just four ingredients—electricity, microbes, carbon dioxide, and water—and can be done so independently of any environmental considerations like soil, temperature, humidity, or even pest control.
Instead, all four raw materials are exposed to electrolysis inside a bioreactor (a closed system that facilitates a chemical process, such as cell or tissue culture) that uses a renewable energy source, such as solar power. The result is a nutrient-rich powder that contains more than 50 percent protein and 25 percent carbohydrates, as well as fats and nucleic acids. The final texture of the product can also be modified depending on the microbes in the reactor.
"In practice, all the raw materials are available from the air,” VTT principal scientist Juha-Pekka Pitkänen said in a press release. “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."
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Although widescale production of the protein is a long way off—it currently takes about two weeks and a bioreactor the size of a coffee cup to produce a single gram of the stuff—a more energy-efficient production process will make this protein exponentially faster to produce than traditional agricultural methods. If done properly, creating food from electricity can be up to 10 times as energy efficient as photosynthesis used to produce soy and other crops.
The researchers’ next step is to produce the protein in large-enough quantities that it can be tested as animal fodder and food products. "We are currently focusing on developing the technology: reactor concepts, technology, improving efficiency and controlling the process,” said LUT professor Jero Ahola. “The idea is to develop the concept into a mass product, with a price that drops as the technology becomes more common.”
Given how much I'd like to avoid a future where insects are the sixth food group, I look forward to the day when my bioreactor-equipped kitchen is capable of turning solar power and electricity into my morning protein shake.
How do you feel about the prospect of creating food from thin air? Will this tiny protein live up to scientists’ outsized expectations?