Making protein from thin air may sound like something out of science fiction, but it’s exactly what the Helsinki, Finland-based company Solar Foods is doing. They use a technique called gas fermentation to create edible protein using only two inputs: air and electricity.
A few months ago we got to interview Solar Foods CEO Pasi Vainikka and learned that the company was gearing up for an initial product launch in 2021. By 2022 they plan to build a factor factory that could make 50 million meals worth of their protein — called solein — per year.
It seems Solar Foods is sticking to their timeline — and even accelerating it. This weekend The Guardian reported that the Finnish company plans to sell 50 million meal’s worth of solein in supermarkets within two years (so, by 2021). The solein will apparently look and taste like flour and cost €5 ($5.64) per kilo. It will be used as an ingredient to add protein to food products, and can also apparently be woven into fibers to mimic meat or bread.
Solar Foods plans to apply to the EU for a novel food license by the end of this year so that they can stay on track to begin commercial production in 2021. They’ve already started pre-engineering on their factory.
While I’m all for making protein for unexpected sources, I wonder if this timeline is a little ambitious. Solar Foods has a couple of obstacles to contend with that might make their vision to put solein in 50 million supermarket meals in the next two years a little… tricky.
The first hurdle is regulation. The European Commission describes novel food as “derived from new production processes (UV-treated food (milk, bread, mushrooms, and yeast.))” Solein is made by genetically engineered bacteria. That certainly falls under the umbrella of new production processes, but the EU is notoriously cautious of GMO’s, so they might be hesitant to approve solein. At the very least, hoping for a less than two-year turnaround for regulatory approval is… optimistic.
The second hurdle for Solar Foods will be consumer acceptance. Will people want to eat protein that’s made from carbon dioxide processed through bacteria? It doesn’t sound terribly appetizing. Then again, according to Vainikka solein will have quite a neutral flavor and appearance, so maybe consumers wouldn’t even know.
Regardless of whether they meet their 2021 production goals, Solar Foods is on track to be the first company to bring gas fermented protein to market. But they won’t be the last. In the U.S. Kiverdi and are Novo Nutrients transforming CO2 into products like oils and fish food. Across the pond, U.K.-based Deep Branch Biotechnology is making animal feed out of the CO2 in industrial waste gas.
Gas fermentation could have implications far beyond the feed lots or the grocery store. Solar Foods is working with the European Space Agency to make a prototype device which could make protein for space missions. So come 2021 (or, you know, later), you could soon theoretically be eating the same diet as an astronaut. Talk about science fiction.