Within two years, you could be making protein shakes with carbon dioxide. The Finnish company Solar Foods recently developed a new protein powder with carbon dioxide, water, some nutrients, and soil microbes. According to Solar Foods, the product, Solein, can be made anywhere at a low cost, and looks and tastes like wheat flour.
The idea for Solein originally came from NASA technology. Scientists at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and the Lappeenranta University of Technology adopted the NASA concept to try making protein from carbon dioxide, and formed Solar Foods in 2017. Now the company and European Space Agency (ESA) are exploring ways to produce Solein in Mars-bound spacecraft. But Solar Foods also aims to solve food-related problems on Earth.
One problem is the environmental impact of industrial agriculture. Industrial agriculture takes up two-thirds of human water use and over 37 percent of Earth's land area. It's also a major source of greenhouse gases. Because of this, governments, non-profits, businesses, and even the United Nations are promoting more sustainable farming techniques and alternative food production methods.
With industrial agriculture's reliance on water, there's a push to develop sustainable farming techniques and new food production technology.
According to Solar Foods CEO Pasi Vainikka, Solein is carbon-neutral and wastes neither land nor water. Solein is also made indoors, and unlike agriculture, it's not affected by factors like weather or fertile land. “Our goal is to develop the protein into a high-quality product whose environmental impact will be 10-100 times smaller than those of meat products or their substitutes currently in the market,” Vainikka told the ESA.
How It's Made
To make the protein powder, scientists need hydrogen, carbon dioxide, nutrients (like potassium, sodium and phosphorous), and soil microbes. Solar Foods harvests carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using carbon capture technology. Then they produce hydrogen by splitting water in a solar-powered electric bioreactor, a process called electrolysis. Then the hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and nutrients are fed to soil microbes. Through fermentation, the microbes produce cells reported to be 50 percent protein, 25 percent carbohydrates, and five to ten percent fat. Scientists then heat treat the cells to make the powder.
The Future of Solein
Solar Foods plans to bring Solein to market in 2021. It will most likely take the form of protein shakes and yogurt. It could also serve as a protein supplement to breads, an ingredient in plant-based meat substitutes, or a source of amino acids for lab-grown meats.
Lab-grown meats, cultured from animal muscle cells, are also projected to hit grocery store shelves in 2021.
But Solar Foods has a long way to go in just two years. Right now, the company faces a scalability problem, and can only produce a kilogram of Solein per day. Vainikka told Vice that this is just enough to feed seven to ten people a full day's worth of protein. Scaling up to compete with current meat substitutes will likely prove a formidable challenge. Food expert Peter Tyedmers from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia also doubts that Solar Foods will be able to scale up enough to challenge the agricultural system, let alone meat substitutes, according to Vice.
Vainikka also predicted that Solein will go for around $8-11 per kilogram. Although this is competitive with other protein supplements, the higher price means that Solein likely won't solve any problems with food insecurity. “These products are never going to meet demands of the most impoverished,” Tyedmers told Vice.
Despite these doubts, the World Economic Forum touts this technology as "a promising source of protein" that "gets us out of the planet-destruction business." If ever, it will likely be a while until Solein "gets us out of the planet-destruction business." Vainikka himself told The Guardian that he doesn't expect Solein to challenge the agriculture industry within the next twenty years.
While Solein will start to pop up in grocery stores soon, its environmental benefits may not be felt for decades. But still, Solar Foods' carbon-neutral, resource-conserving method of production could inspire iterative change in the food world.