Finland’s Frankenstein food?
By Canadian Packaging staffDesign & Innovation General Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland
Food created using electricity, water, carbon and microbes could be used to grow food to stop world hunger.
Water – check. Carbon – check. Microbes – check. Bolt of lightning, er, electricity – check. Abby Normal need not apply.
Researchers from Finland’s Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland have Frankensteined a way to synthesize something that is akin to food, but certainly possesses single-cell proteins that is, in its current state, both edible and nutritious.
While good enough for livestock feed now, the researchers hope that the protein creation can be used to grow food in areas to help stem global hunger. There is no data on how it tastes, however.
The scientific method releases food production from restrictions related to the environment, with the single-cell protein produced anywhere renewable energy, such as solar energy, is available.
“In practice, all the raw materials are available from the air. 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,” explains VTT head scientist Juha-Pekka Pitkänen.
Along with food, the researchers are developing the protein to be used as animal feed. The protein created with electricity can be used as a fodder replacement, thus releasing land areas for other purposes, such as forestry. It allows food to be produced where it is needed.
“Compared to traditional agriculture, the production method currently under development does not require a location with the conditions for agriculture, such as the right temperature, humidity or a certain soil type. This allows us to use a completely automatized process to produce the animal feed required in a shipping container facility built on the farm. The method requires no pest-control substances. Only the required amount of fertilizer-like nutrients is used in the closed process. This allows us to avoid any environmental impacts, such as runoffs into water systems or the formation of powerful greenhouse gases,” says LUT professor Jero Ahola.
Tenfold energy efficiency
According to estimates by the researchers, the process of creating food from electricity can be nearly 10 times as energy-efficient as common photosynthesis, which is used for cultivation of soy and other products. For the product to be competitive, the production process must become even more efficient. Currently, the production of one gram of protein takes around two weeks, using laboratory equipment that is about the size of a coffee cup.
The next step the researchers are aiming for is to begin pilot production. At the pilot stage, the material would be produced in quantities sufficient for development and testing of fodder and food products. This would also allow a commercialization to be done.
“We are currently focusing on developing the technology: reactor concepts, technology, improving efficiency and controlling the process. Control of the process involves adjustment and modeling of renewable energy so as to enable the microbes to grow as well as possible. The idea is to develop the concept into a mass product, with a price that drops as the technology becomes more common. The schedule for commercialization depends on the economy,” Ahola states.
50 per cent protein
“In the long-term, protein created with electricity is meant to be used in cooking and products as it is. The mixture is very nutritious, with more than 50 per cent protein and 25 percent carbohydrates. The rest is fats and nucleic acids. The consistency of the final product can be modified by changing the organisms used in the production,” Pitkänen explains.
The study is part of the wide-ranging Neo-Carbon Energy research project carried out jointly by the LUT and VTT, whose aim is to develop an emission-free energy system.