Something from nothing

Solar Foods’ photosynthesis-inspired process is creating a new future for food.

Finnish food technology company Solar Foods can create protein out of thin air. By employing a unique process that uses carbon dioxide (CO2), water and electricity, the company is able to produce a high-protein ingredient they call solein, which can be used in a variety of food products.

Protein, a particularly in-demand and important nutrient for humans which is found in meat, soy and other plant-based products, is traditionally incredibly resource-intensive to produce – the harmful effects of agriculture on Earth’s limited resources are well documented. Solein, however, requires a hundred times less water and twenty times less land to produce than plants.

Humans’ current method of food production is also dependent on land and weather conditions. The solein process, meanwhile, can be carried out in any location that has access to electricity — food can be harvested in places where agriculture is unviable, such as cities, deserts or sub-zero landscapes, leaving vast spaces untouched for nature to thrive.

But how do scientists essentially create food out of thin air? Solar Foods works by using a proprietary fermentation process to produce a single-cell protein. This process begins by capturing CO2 from the air and mixing it with water and a small quantity of nutrients. That mixture is then fermented using a microorganism that consumes the CO2 and nutrients, producing solein as a byproduct. The byproduct is harvested, dried and milled into a powder that can be used as a food ingredient. It contains 65-70% protein, 5-8% (primarily unsaturated) fat, 10-15% dietary fibres and 3-5% mineral nutrients such as iron, fibre and B vitamins.

Solar Foods began as a scientific research programme at Finland’s VTT Technical Research Centre and Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology, where a team discovered a way to turn emission-free electricity and captured CO2 into edible calories. Dr Pasi Vainikka and Dr Juha-Pekka Pitkänen saw the potential in this discovery, forming Solar Foods in 2017 and starting research and development in 2018.

The first solein factory is being built in Vantaa in Finland, and is set to start producing the sustainable protein in commercial quantities in 2024.

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Photographs: Solar Foods.

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