By Adele Peters
It may sound strange, but a startup called Solar Foods is transforming CO2 into food they want to bring to grocery stores as an “alternative” protein in the next couple of years.
The startups using new technology to pull carbon dioxide from the air are beginning to use that CO2 to make products like fuel and, in one case, inviting consumers to pay to store it underground as a way to fight climate change. But it can also be an ingredient in food.
Solar Foods, a Finland-based company, has developed a process to use renewable electricity and CO2 to produce a healthy ingredient that looks like wheat flour and contains 50% protein. The company is currently gathering data to apply for a food license from the EU later this year and plans to begin commercial production in 2021.
“We started to think about what are the preconditions that you could have in order to establish the most environmentally friendly food,” says CEO and cofounder Pasi Vainikka, who previously worked as a researcher at Finland’s national research institute. By using the basic materials of electricity and CO2, they realized, it would be possible to make food that could avoid the massive environmental footprint of agriculture—which comprises everything from land and water use to the emissions from fertilizing crops or raising animals.
Food made through fermentation, like beer or lab-grown meat, currently relies on feeding plant sugars to microbes. The new process replaces those sugars with carbon. “Because we don’t use sugars, or similar agricultural feedstocks, we can completely disconnect from agriculture,” Vainikka says. The process uses solar power to split water through electrolysis in a bioreactor, creating hydrogen that can give microbes energy as they’re also fed carbon. The microbes produce a food that’s composed of roughly 20-25% carbs, 5-10% fat, and 50% protein.
It’s a far more efficient way to produce protein than raising cattle. Producing a single burger, by one estimate, requires 64.5 square feet of land, mostly for cattle feed. Grazing cattle and growing grains to feed them are both leading causes of deforestation in places like the Amazon. Another study estimates that producing a burger uses as much as 660 gallons of water. Meat is also a major source of CO2 emissions. The new protein powder, called Solein, claims to be 100 times more climate-friendly than any animal or even plant-based alternative. It can yield 10 times more usable protein per acre than soy production, the company says.
When it starts showing up in grocery stores—within the next two years, if all goes according to plan—it won’t be in its powder form but as an ingredient in products like protein shakes, perhaps, or plant-based yogurt. That’s in part because it’s likely most palatable for consumers: Bags of CO2-based flour might not gain as much acceptance. For plant-based meat companies like Impossible Foods, which focus on the environment, it could be a way to shrink their environmental footprints even further. “We know Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods use pea protein, soy proteins,” says Vainikka. “And if they scale big time, they need a lot of these proteins.” Further in the future, the ingredient could be used to 3D-print new foods or used as a feedstock for “clean meat” grown in bioreactors.
Because the process is fully disconnected from traditional agriculture, the company is also working with the European Space Agency as a potential source of food for astronauts in space (this concept was something that NASA first considered in the middle of the 20th century but never brought to life). The company also envisions eventually working in areas that haven’t been able to support agriculture in the past, such as deserts or the Arctic. It might spawn new business models in the future: If you sell the company solar power from your roof, for example, you might be paid back in food.
It’s not clear yet how far the product can go in displacing resource-intensive agriculture—to meet nutritional requirements, people will still need other food like fruits and vegetables, and it’s also unclear how consumers will react. But it could potentially help the food system meet increasing demand for protein. And as companies like Impossible Foods quickly grow, it’s conceivable that this innovation could support them. The company plans to start preengineering its first commercial plant later this year and to have 50 million meals’ worth of product sold in supermarkets within two years.