food technology

How Solar Foods produce food from the air

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” as Arthur C Clarke once said. Solar Foods may qualify as once of those advanced technologies, and they know it. They describe their product as “the magic powder of science”, and it might be one of the most radical ideas I’ve covered on the blog.

Solar Foods make food out of the air.

I get a fair number of press releases about new manufacturing techniques. Most of them claim to be revolutionary and many of them are indeed remarkable, though I generally I wait and see whether there’s any commercial application before writing about them. Solar Foods was one that I filed for later. It sounded a little too good to be true: Finnish scientists make food out of electricity and air.

A couple of years later, the company has scaled up production by a factor of a thousand and proved its viability. They have successfully funded their first efforts to commercialise the process, and it looks like their product is on the way.

So what are we talking about here?

Despite the talk of magic, the process itself isn’t so very different from brewing. At the heart of production is a fermenter full of naturally occurring microbes. These microbes are fed on hydrogen and carbon dioxide, and they multiply within their liquid habitat.

The liquid thickens, then it can be skimmed off and dried to produce a mostly tasteless powder that is a high grade protein. I suppose you could call it a ‘microbial protein’, but they’ve chosen to emphasise the power source in the name instead and have called it ‘solein’.

If you’re imagining sucking grey paste from a tube like you’re an exile from The Matrix, that’s not what the company has in mind. Solein would be used as a protein ingredient in other foods, including meat substitutes but also bread or pasta. It would dramatically increase the protein and nutritional value of those foods, with a fraction of the environmental impact.

The nearest equivalent is perhaps soy powder, already a widely used ingredient, and Solein dramatically outperforms it in the environmental stakes.

A hectare of land can produce 60kg of protein from beef, 1,000kg from soy, or 60,000kg of Solein. It uses 100 times less water than plants, no pesticides or chemicals. Provided it is created using electricity from renewable sources, it produces 5 times less CO2 than farming plants.

What Solar Foods have created is, basically, a food source disconnected from agriculture. That’s a first in human history, a genuine breakthrough.

Yes, some people are going to find it wierd, but they’ve only discovered and harnessed a microbe that was already doing this in nature. As the company points out, “it is not artificial, although understandably it is non-traditional and entirely new.”

Because it will be an ingredient rather than a food in its own right, you might not hear much about Solein in future. We might not engage with it as a brand, though that will depend on the marketers and not the scientists. But it’s on its way. Solar Foods expect it to be on shelves by 2022.

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