Protein derived from CO2. Image credit: Solar Foods

We know that relying on animals — especially methane-producing cows — for the bulk of our protein is unsustainable. But creating protein alternatives in labs or out of plants can also have a significant environmental cost.

What about if we nixed the agricultural bits altogether and just made protein out naturally occuring elements in the air around us? Sounds like science fiction, but Finnish company Solar Foods is working to do just that. The company is creating a new platform for food production using two inputs: air and electricity.

Solar Foods’ technology captures CO2 and water from the air and introduces them to genetically modified bacteria, which form single-celled proteins the company calls ‘Solein.’

Founded in 2017, Solar Foods came about when its CEO Pasi Vainikka, who was in charge of the largest renewable energy resource program in Finland, wanted to develop new technology to push the world towards carbon neutrality. He discovered that one big way to sequester carbon was by making it into food.

As Vainikka explained it, their technology is similar to what Impossible Foods is doing to create its heme or how Perfect Day is making milk without cows. Only instead of feeding sugar solutions to the microbes, as those two startups are doing, Solar Foods feeds them carbon dioxide and hydrogen extracted from the air.

Motif Ingredients and Sustainable Bioproducts are two other companies using microbes to spin out protein, though they also don’t rely on CO2 as the main input. “We are a branch parallel to [them],” said Vainikka. “Not sugar fermentation, but gas fermentation.”

Not the sexiest of names, admittedly. For the less nerdy folks, though, Vainikka said he also calls their process “making food from air.” In fact, visit the Solar Foods lab in Finland and you (yes, you) could actually breathe into their device and make protein.

By disconnecting completely from agriculture, animal and otherwise, Solar Foods can produce protein with a negligable environmental footprint. As it’s not reliant on irrigation, feed, or weather, Solar Foods’ production capacity is also pretty much indefinite.

The technology is way beyond the theoretical stage. As of now, Solar Foods can produce one kilogram of protein per day. The company is also in the early stages of constructing a full-scale factory, filing for patents on their organisms, and starting food application tests.

It raised €2 million (~$2,273,000) in funding from Lifeline Ventures last year. In terms of timing, the company plans to have a global commercial launch of Solein in 2021 and, by 2022, is hoping to scale up to produce enough protein for 50 million meals per year.

Vainikka may have established Solar Foods to make the Earth carbon neutral, but one of the main applications for his technology is actually space travel. The company is working with the European Space Agency to make a prototype device which could theoretically be used to sustain astronauts on a mission to Mars.

Launching their technology into outer space makes things a lot more complicated for Solar Foods. To function on a spacecraft their protein has to last seven years, according to Vainikka. Since the contained environment of a spaceship is a closed loop, the platform will also have to function off of recirculated water and CO2 sourced from inside the ship, as well as recycled energy. “We need super efficient circulation of these factors,” explained Vainikka.

Here on Earth, Vainikka hasn’t yet decided on the best application for Solein. It might be used in a meal replacement product à la Soylent, or even in the Impossible burger as a more sustainable alternative to soy. He told us that Solar Foods will be a protein supplier for food producers and isn’t looking to create their own branded consumer goods.

Photo: Kiverdi.

Gas fermentation may sound kind of out there, but actually Solar Foods is part of a nascent group of startups using carbon dioxide and electricity to make food. Based in San Francisco, Kiverdi is using microbes to upcycle CO2 into edible products like palm oils and proteins. Nearby, Novo Nutrients is leveraging a similar technology to turn CO2 into feed for aquaculture farms. In the U.K., Deep Branch Biotechnology is also focused on animal feed, making single cell proteins out of CO2 in industrial waste gas. Vainikka also pointed out a few university research groups, including ones in Ghent and Nottingham, U.K., which are working on a similar technology.

While gas fermentation makes a lot of sense for space travel, I could also see it having a significant environmental effect here on Earth. Demand for protein is skyrocketing: ResearchandMarkets.com projects that the global protein market will grow from $49.8 billion in 2019 to $70.7 billion in 2025. The world’s population is also projected to hit almost 10 billion by 2050. Combine those, and it means we’ll need to find protein wherever we can — especially if it can replace less sustainable ingredients (like meat) and sequester carbon in the process.

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