This Startup Is Making Food Mostly Out of Air and Electricity
Solar Foods says its protein powder is “completely” disconnected from agriculture. But its currently low production yield of 1 kg per day raises red flags.
Solar Foods doesn't use agriculture feedstocks in its products, so it “can make food in space or in the desert or the Arctic.” Image: Solar Foods
A Finnish tech startup has managed to produce food mainly out of electricity and air, and is now looking to enter the market by 2021.
Solar Foods, based out of the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and the Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT), is still in its pilot stages of production, currently producing one kilogram of protein-rich edible powder (“Solein”) per day.
According to CEO Pasi Vainikka, one kilogram of Solein can feed seven to ten people their full day’s worth of protein.
Solar Foods hopes this will someday serve as a carbon neutral vegan alternative to meat and soy, both of which are land- and resource-intensive to produce. Vannika says Solein is “completely” disconnected from agriculture: The soil microbes used only require collection from natural land once. From there they are grown in the lab, and the inorganic nutrients they use are obtained from mineral deposits that don’t require the use of fertile land.
Other meat alternatives on or nearing the market, such as the plant-based Impossible Burger or lab-grown meat at Memphis Meats, aim to reduce the global burden of farming—estimated to take up nearly half of the planet’s land surface, and the source of approximately 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the US. These products still rely upon agricultural inputs, however, be it plants or cells from living animals, which consume grass.
“It’s not good enough to change the energy system actually, we also need to change how and what we eat,” Pasi Vainikka, CEO of Solar Foods, told me over the phone. “If you want to…reduce climate impact, you would need to disconnect from land use and this is what we can now do with this technology. We don’t use any agriculture feedstocks in our products, so we can make food in space or in the desert or the Arctic.”
Solar Foods is currently conducting a feasibility study for the European Space Agency, which approached the company in early 2018 about crafting technology to produce its protein-dense powder inside Mars-bound spacecrafts. Solar Foods is a part of the ESA’s Business Incubation Programme, which provides grant money and access to ESA staff and networks.
To produce the powder, Solar Foods first creates hydrogen through electrolysis (splitting water cells in a bioreactor using electricity). It then adds the hydrogen to carbon dioxide, as well as nutrients such as potassium, sodium, and phosphorus, and feeds this into microbes derived from soil.
The entire process results in cells that Vainikka estimates are 50 percent protein, 25 percent carbohydrates, and 5 to 10 percent fat.
According to Vainikka, the powder could be consumed in three ways: as a protein supplement to existing foods, such as breads or drinks; as an ingredient in plant-based meat alternatives, such as veggie burgers; or as a sustainable source of amino acids needed to create lab-grown meat products.
In terms of cost, Vainikka is looking at pricing the powder from 7 to 10 euros ($8-$11) per kilo, which he hopes will be competitive with other plant- and animal-based proteins already on the market.
Vainikka admits the team has a long way to go, in part due to scalability issues and safety regulations it must adhere to before being able to introduce a brand new food to the market.
Solar Foods’ currently low production yield raises red flags for food expert Peter Tyedmers, a professor in the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. He sees the project as impossible to scale to a level that will compete with our current agricultural system, and its prices still too high to address global food insecurity.
“These products are never going to meet demands of the most impoverished,” Tyedmers said over the phone. “The people who need food are the ones who can least afford food, and this will never be the least expensive food.”
“This is a technological marvel, perhaps, but it’s not a food system,” he said.
There’s also the question of demand: if edible powder made from air and electricity does reach the market, will consumers even want to eat it? Mainstream acceptance of meat and dairy alternatives such as the Impossible Burger has increased over the past few years, but newer and more technologically complex food products such as lab-grown meat still draw criticism for being generally unappealing, despite their potential as an eco-friendly alternative.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, professor in the Rowe School of Business at Dalhousie says innovation in the food space is difficult, because consumers are typically wary of new products until “a food trend becomes mainstream.”
“It’s very hard to make a go at it when margins are so low and you really have to rely on high volume and intensive distribution channels, which aren’t necessarily available early on,” he said over the phone.
But Charlebois notes that Solar Foods is the first startup he’s seen of its kind to even approach the market, and remains optimistic for the calorie-dense powder.
“2018 was a bit of a watershed year for plant-based dieting,” he said. “It’s certainly been normalized, and that can help any new company looking at the food market, as to whether or not they can actually sell a product at a premium that can serve the environment better.”
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