Science

Food From Electricity project bears its first protein-rich "fruit"

Food From Electricity project ...
Made in a small portable lab, this edible protein powder could help famine-stricken areas better produce their own food
Made in a small portable lab, this edible protein powder could help famine-stricken areas better produce their own food
View 11 Images
The centerpiece of the Food From Electricity system is a bioreactor, which contains water, microbes, and nutrients, while carbon dioxide and an electric current are piped in
1/11
The centerpiece of the Food From Electricity system is a bioreactor, which contains water, microbes, and nutrients, while carbon dioxide and an electric current are piped in
The Food From Electricity technology can be hooked up to renewable power sources
2/11
The Food From Electricity technology can be hooked up to renewable power sources
This diagram shows how the team's bioreactor works
3/11
This diagram shows how the team's bioreactor works
Juha-Pekka Pitkänen, Principal Scientist at VTT, is a key researcher on the Food from Electricity project
4/11
Juha-Pekka Pitkänen, Principal Scientist at VTT, is a key researcher on the Food from Electricity project
Jero Ahola, a Professor at LUT, is one of the key researchers on the Food From Electricity project
5/11
Jero Ahola, a Professor at LUT, is one of the key researchers on the Food From Electricity project
The resulting powder is very nutritious, with over 50 percent protein and 25 percent carbohydrates
6/11
The resulting powder is very nutritious, with over 50 percent protein and 25 percent carbohydrates
A gas fermenter in the VTT Lab
7/11
A gas fermenter in the VTT Lab
The Food From Electricity project is aiming to eventually develop self-contained systems that could fit into shipping containers
8/11
The Food From Electricity project is aiming to eventually develop self-contained systems that could fit into shipping containers
The Food From Electricity team says the process has the potential to be 10 times more energy efficient than growing crops through photosynthesis
9/11
The Food From Electricity team says the process has the potential to be 10 times more energy efficient than growing crops through photosynthesis
An advantage of the Food From Electricity technology is that it isn't dependent on very specific conditions the way traditional farming is
10/11
An advantage of the Food From Electricity technology is that it isn't dependent on very specific conditions the way traditional farming is
Made in a small portable lab, this edible protein powder could help famine-stricken areas better produce their own food
11/11
Made in a small portable lab, this edible protein powder could help famine-stricken areas better produce their own food

A Finnish research project has created a batch of single-cell protein using just electricity, water, carbon dioxide and microbes, in a small portable lab. While we're hesitant to call it "food" in its current state, the stuff is edible and nutritious enough to be used for cooking or livestock feed, and the team hopes that the system can eventually be used to grow food in areas where it's needed the most.

Agriculture isn't the most efficient of processes, requiring huge swathes of land, plenty of resources and an enormous environmental toll. And that's just to grow the food, let alone transporting it around the world. To help alleviate some of those issues and free up farmland for other purposes, the Food From Electricity study was launched in August last year, as a joint project between Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) and the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.

As the name suggests, the team is developing a way to create food from electricity – with the help of a few other resources, of course. The centerpiece of the system is a bioreactor, which contains water, microbes, and nutrients like nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorus. Carbon dioxide and an electrical current are pumped into the mix to kick things off.

This diagram shows how the team's bioreactor works
This diagram shows how the team's bioreactor works

The electric current triggers electrolysis of the water, which produces hydrogen. Fed by the nutrients, the microbes then add oxygen to that hydrogen, and the end result of the chemical reaction is then separated and dried out into a powdery, edible, nutritious compound.

"In the long term, protein created with electricity is meant to be used in cooking and products as it is," says Juha-Pekka Pitkänen, Principal Scientist at VTT. "The mixture is very nutritious, with more than 50 per cent protein and 25 percent carbohydrates. The rest is fats and nucleic acids. The consistency of the final product can be modified by changing the organisms used in the production."

Currently, it takes about two weeks to produce one gram of protein, and the equipment to do so is about the size of a coffee cup. By scaling up the system, the researchers say their process should eventually be almost 10 times more energy efficient than photosynthesis, which is used to grow similar crops. And there are plenty of other environmental benefits as well.

The Food From Electricity project is aiming to eventually develop self-contained systems that could fit into shipping containers
The Food From Electricity project is aiming to eventually develop self-contained systems that could fit into shipping containers

"Compared to traditional agriculture, the production method currently under development does not require a location with the conditions for agriculture, such as the right temperature, humidity or a certain soil type," says Jero Ahola, a Professor at LUT. "This allows us to use a completely automatized process to produce the animal feed required in a shipping container facility built on the farm. The method requires no pest-control substances. Only the required amount of fertilizer-like nutrients is used in the closed process. This allows us to avoid any environmental impacts, such as runoffs into water systems or the formation of powerful greenhouse gases."

The study will continue for another three years, and in that time the team plans to fine-tune the reactor, improve efficiency and develop the system for commercialization.

Sources: Lappeenranta University of Technology [1],[2]

4 comments
eMacPaul
"Fed by the nutrients, the microbes then turn that hydrogen into oxygen, and the end result is then dried out into a powdery, edible, nutritious compound." I'm not sure if by "oxygen" you mean "protein," but I can guarantee the microbes aren't turning hydrogen into oxygen.
Martin Winlow
Food manufacture on long distance space journeys?
Ralf Biernacki
An interesting development, with water electrolysis substituted for photolysis in the key part of photosynthetic pathway, presumably at much higher efficiency. With this method, food "crops" can be grown in the dark, with electric rather than solar power. Think underground farming, maybe on the Moon or Mars. But the article still has some errors. The microbes do not produce organic compounds by recombining hydrogen with oxygen, but with carbon dioxide. Oxygen is a "waste" product, just as in photosynthetic plants.
MK23666
Manna from Heaven.