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Scientists Make Food Using Electricity Seemingly Out Of Thin Air

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.

Researchers based in Finland created food using electricity, water, carbon dioxide, and microbes. The synthetic food was cooked up as part of a larger project, called Food From Electricity. The project is a collaboration between Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) and the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.

Solar Foods is also working with the European Space Agency to supply astronauts on a mission to Mars after devising a method it says creates a protein-heavy product that looks and tastes like wheat flour at a cost of €5 (£4.50) per kilo.

The powder known as Solein can be given texture through 3D printing, or added to dishes and food products as an ingredient.

Juha-Pekka Pitkänen, Principal Scientist at VTT, says, “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.”

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.

“It is a completely new kind of food, a new kind of protein, different to all the food on the market today in how it is produced as it does not need agriculture or aquaculture,” he said.

While Pitkänen predicts that the technology will take 10 years to scale up the technology, the implications for this project are huge.

Starving humans who lack access to food due to their geographical location can create nutritious powder for themselves whenever they need it. 

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.

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.”