There’s no doubt that our world’s food supply faces big challenges. With myriad problems ranging from soil erosion to climate change, there is increasing stress on a global food system to figure out how to feed a rapidly growing world population.
And those are just the challenges we face here on Earth. Even bigger difficulties await future space travelers trying to explore and inhabit far off places like Mars where there is currently no food system whatsoever.
So with all these challenges – on earth and in space – wouldn’t it be great to invent some gizmo that makes food out of thin air? Well, the good news is that’s exactly what a startup from Finland is working to do.
Last year, we wrote about how researchers from Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) had figured out how to create a single cell protein using only water, electricity, carbon dioxide and small organisms obtained from the environment. This year, the same group of researchers founded a company called Solar Foods, received €2 million in funding from Lifeline Ventures, and is now teaming up with the European Space Agency to create a bioreactor that can make food on Mars. The company has indicated it expects commercial protein production to start by 2021.
From the release:
“The conditions in Mars colonies are very different from those on Earth, but they have sunshine, and there are huge amounts of carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere,” says Kimmo Isbjörnssund, Manager, ESA Business Incubation Centre Finland. “The pioneering technology of Solar Foods enables a new way of producing food even in closed spaces. We assume that ingredients available at the Mars base can be used with the new technology.”
While the idea of a food machine to feed future space civilizations is exciting, a bioreactor to feed people here on earth has much bigger potential implications in the near-term. If the technology results in commercial or even consumer products that can produce food cheaply, bioreactors would be a completely new form of food production that doesn’t put stress on our existing systems. The idea of low-cost bioreactors dispersed in food-stressed areas ten to fifteen years from now seems fairly reachable, particularly if the company expects to commercialize their research into working bioreactors in just a few years.
Could a company like Solar Foods to create a bioreactor for home use? While the company hasn’t given any hints on future consumer products, history has shown us that everyday products developed for space travel often find their way into consumer homes. Products like Tang and freeze dried ice cream eventually made it to grocery store shelves, so why not expect to see a countertop version of a bioreactor next to our microwave someday?
And who knows, maybe we’ll even include a home bioreactor in the Spoon’s holiday gift guide of 2030.