Humans need protein to survive, but growing the food that supplies the much needed protein adds carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, speeding up the pace of climate change. Agriculture has many other negative environmental effects.
Growing crops and raising livestock both consume enormous quantities of water. Millions of tons of fertilizers made from petroleum are dumped on fields. Lagoons large enough to be seen from space are filled with animal waste. The runoff from those fields and lagoons pollute local rivers and streams before washing into the oceans.
Millions of acres of forests are chopped down every year to make room for more grazing land and farms. When those trees are burned or decompose, the carbon dioxide sequestered in their wood is released back into the atmosphere, making the world hotter.
Scientists in Finland are working on a new process that creates protein using electricity and carbon dioxide from the air. Think about that for a moment. It might actually be possible for people to feed themselves anywhere on earth using nothing but electricity from solar or other renewable energy sources.
No fertilizer, no animal waste, no deforestation, no emissions from trucks hauling food to market, and no famine in places where too little water and too much heat combine to make conventional agriculture impossible. Is it a dream?
Maybe. The technology isn’t quite ready to leap out of the laboratory quite yet. In fact, at present it takes two weeks to grow a gram of protein. But scientists at the Lappeenranta University of Technology and the VTT Technical Research Center in Finland have proven it can be done. Now all they have to do is scale up the process and scale down the costs.
“In practice, all the raw materials are available from the air. In the future, the technology can be transported to, for instance, deserts and other areas facing famine. One possible alternative is a home reactor, a type of domestic appliance that the consumer can use to produce the needed protein,” explains Juha-Pekka Pitkänen, Principal Scientist at VTT.
The protein produced in the lab could be consumed directly by humans or used as fodder for animals. “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.
“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,” says Professor Jero Ahola of LUT.
The scientists claim their process is 10 times more energy efficient than ordinary photosynthesis. Next, they will attempt to produce larger quantities of their prototype protein so that full-scale trials leading to commercialization of the process can begin.
“We are currently focusing on developing the technology: reactor concepts, technology, improving efficiency and controlling the process. Control of the process involves adjustment and modelling of renewable energy so as to enable the microbes to grow as well as possible. The idea is to develop the concept into a mass product, with a price that drops as the technology becomes more common. The schedule for commercialization depends on the economy,” Ahola states.
Professor Pitkänen explains, “In the long term, protein created with electricity is meant to be used in cooking and products as it is. 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.”
The research is part of the Neo-Carbon Energy project funded by the Academy of Finland. Its goal is to develop an energy system that is completely renewable and emission free. Goals don’t get much loftier than that.