This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Denmark.
Humans have always been obsessed with hacking Mother Nature. Alchemists from around the world tried for millennia to create the philosopher's stone in order to turn base metals into lead, and, while they never succeeded, their work paved the way for modern chemistry and science.
Today, there are easier ways to come into money. You could, for instance, speculate in a virtual currency or ask your wealthy parents to buy an apartment for you in Copenhagen, which they can later sell after you've lived in it for a few years. That's really all it takes. Which is why many researchers today are driven by more philanthropic goals, such as finding out how to feed an overpopulated world without killing the planet itself.
And this team of researchers in Finland have gotten us one step closer towards a solution to that problem: They claim they've figured out how to turn electricity into food. Juha-Pekka Pitkänen, a 42-year-old bioprocessing engineer from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, is spearheading the project. The goal is to "develop an energy system that is completely sustainable and carbon neutral." The project is a collaboration between the VTT and Denmark's Lappeenranta University of Technology. Last month, the researchers published a press release in which they announced they successfully managed to produce food from electricity in the form of a powder substance.
There are people on our planet who live on nothing but water, and there's even those who believe it's possible to survive on sunlight alone, so why not consider a voltage diet? Of course, this kind of modern alchemy gives rise to quite a few questions, so we called Pitkänen to hear how such a feat is even possible—and to learn more about the taste of electricity.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Juha. First of all: How do you turn electricity into food?
Juha-Pekka Pätkinen: We basically grow a single-celled organism that absorbs CO2 as a source of carbon and hydrogen as an energy source. We produce the hydrogen in a bioreactor by splitting water molecules using electricity—it's called water electrolysis. Then we add ammonium sulfate as a nitrogen source. After that, we also add various microbes and non-organic nutrients, such as phosphorus. But we still have work to do before we can produce an actual food product. Where do the microbes come from?
They are single-celled organisms. Special bacteria that we have selected and added to the process—for instance, yeast and lactic acid bacteria. These are bacteria that are relatively common in nature. In soil, for example. What we're doing is really a bioprocess, like when you brew beer or wine. The only difference is that we use CO2 and electricity as raw materials instead of sugar. It sounds pretty freaky. What does it mean?
Most importantly, it means that this process cuts the farming out of the equation. We can get the CO2 from the air, and we can extract the electricity from solar panels.
Can you compare it to fermentation?
Yes, the only difference is that we use other raw materials. But it's called a bioprocess and not fermentation.
Would you be able to experiment with flavor and texture by adding more stuff to the process?
So, the process can be divided into two: The way to produce the cell mass, and what you use the cell mass for. The mass consists of approximately 50 percent protein, 25 percent carbohydrates, and the rest is fats and nucleic acid. To change the texture of the cell mass, we would have to change the way the mass is produced. We are not there yet, but taste and texture are of course very important, so we think of it in connection with the final product.
How did you react when you saw this powder come into existence before your very eyes?
In science, we always start out with a hypothesis. Sometimes your hypothesis holds water, other times it doesn't. Since we tried to do this unsuccessfully for several years, I was of course very happy that we suddenly succeeded.
You weren't overwhelmed by a sudden urge to taste the powder?
I did actually taste it. It doesn't have a specific taste. But I should probably eat more of it to be absolutely sure. Most of the powder is reserved for analysis, so I only tasted a tiny bit of it on my tongue. There wasn't enough for a mouthful.
How do you see this technology working in the future?
Probably in industrial food production. It'll be necessary for the texture of the final product to feel more like meat. Right now, we have eight 70-milliliter bioreactors in our lab, and we can produce 1 gram a fortnight. If we increase the scale and make our volumetric capacity about 20 times larger, so that it will be about two cubic meters, we would be able to produce 5 kilos of cell mass per day. That would be enough to meet the daily protein needs of approximately 40 people. That's what we will be working towards over the next couple of years.
In fact, we performed similar experiments during the cold war in connection with the space race. Both sides in the conflict tried to find a way to grow food in space, but the technology has only now advanced enough to make it possible. Would you be able to recreate the process outside the atmosphere of the Earth? On Mars, for example?
You would have to bring both the microbes and the bioreactor from home. Then you would have to find a little bit of water, generate electricity with solar panels, and you'd have to find some carbon dioxide. There's plenty of that in Mars' atmosphere. How much water are we talking about? Does the amount of water depend on the volume of the production?
Not really. You need some water, but most of it will be recycled. In any case, you would have to spend several hundred times less water than in conventional agricultural production. Would I be able to do all this myself at home?
So, it's really quite simple. If you go to Youtube and search for "water electrolysis," you can find some videos. It is quite easy to make hydrogen and oxygen. Then you just need to build the bioreactor. In any event, it's much easier than alchemy.