Turning electricity into food is an ecological solution to food production

A new research project aims to determine how renewable electricity, carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere, and micro-organisms can be used to produce food – single-cell protein of which half consists of protein, one fourth of carbohydrates, and the rest of lipids and nucleic acids. This ecological solution may become an alternative to traditional farming.

The method applied in a research project launched in August by Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) and the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd. is based on the growing of micro-organisms. The method involves conducting renewable electricity into a bioreactor, breaking down water into hydrogen and oxygen. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere is also fed into the reactor. The microbes in the reactor are supplied with nutrients, such as nitrogen, sulphur, and phosphorus, as well as other micronutrients. This makes the microbes grow and multiply.

At the beginning of the food manufacturing process, the mass is dried to remove water. The outcome is a compound that reminds protein powder or dry yeast. The long-term goal is for the product to be usable as such in cooking.

"It's not much different from yeast. Yeast is also a microbe," Professor Jero Ahola points out.

Calculations indicate that the process efficiency could be significantly higher than that of plants and at least equal to that of algae. The energy efficiency from sunlight to plant-based biomass is approximately one to two per cent, and to algae biomass no more than five per cent. At least five per cent of solar energy ends up in hydrogen microbes with the current efficiency of solar cells and water electrolysis.

At the moment, the manufacturing process takes roughly two weeks. For the product to become competitive, the lead time must be reduced.

The researchers estimate that the method could replace a part of agricultural food production in the future. The agricultural sector is globally the second largest producer of greenhouse gases after the energy sector. The amount of land available for farming is limited and is obtained by clearing forests, consequently emitting more greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, the growing global population requires more food. The method studied in the project could produce food rich in protein, but without farmland, cattle breeding, and related emissions.

"If we compare our product to the competing one – soy protein – the difference is clear. Growing soy protein requires sunlight, moisture, soil, and a certain temperature. In other words, the conditions must be right, and the soy must finally be transported to Finland. The method we are studying is independent of the surrounding environment and is ecological," explains Ahola.

The researchers specify that the product is still far from large-scale commercialisation even though the first food cells have already been produced with electrical energy in laboratory conditions. The project is still focusing on basic research, and initial research results can be expected approximately two years from now.

The four-year research project is funded by the Academy of Finland.

Further information:

Jero Ahola, Professor, LUT, jero.ahola@lut.fi, +358 40 529 8524, twitter: @JeroAhola

Juha-Pekka Pitkänen, Principal Scientist, VTT, juha-pekka.pitkanen@vtt.fi, +358 40 356 9758