Could This Food, Made From Electricity and Air, Replace Cows?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because your hamburger is killing the planet.
By Fiona Zublin
The food of the future doesn’t yet have a name. For now, scientist Pasi Vainikka and his team of two, all stuffed into a lab the size of a really big walk-in closet, call it “the biomass.” They laugh politely at suggestions to call it “Bob” but don’t make any commitments. They’re saving the world here; have some dignity.
That biomass, of which about two coffee cups’ worth exist in the world, is the raison d’etre of Solar Foods, Vainikka’s company, which has, they claim, worked out a way to produce an edible, protein-rich organism using electricity and air. In a little oscillator in this tiny room, they’re making what comes out into a chunky, taste-free white powder — which they show me, but don’t let me eat — whose main ingredients are electricity and carbon dioxide.
Within three years, they hope to have a new lab and a pilot factory and be producing a million kilograms of Bob per year.
“My question was: Could we produce food using electricity, and carbon dioxide as a carbon source?” Vainikka says. They proved that it could be done last year — that’s where the chunky powder comes from — and now they’ve rented a small lab space at Finland’s state-owned technical research company. The company was founded in November and has already garnered €2 million in venture capital funds, so now Vainikka is trying to figure out how they can scale up production to supply the quantities needed for the multi-year process of getting approved by EFSA, a European body equivalent to the FDA. Within three years, they hope to have a new lab and a pilot factory and be producing a million kilograms of Bob per year. “We’re not limited by area or weather or climate or land,” he says, “so it could be the backbone of basic nutrition.” They also estimate that it’s about 10 times more energy-efficient than photosynthesis.
The process of creating Bob — sorry, but “the biomass” is so joyless — looks a little like fermentation, explains technology director Juha-Pekka Pitkänen. “It’s also a bioprocess, but instead of using sugars, we use electricity and carbon dioxide,” he says, adding that it’s then “fed” with salts and other inorganic nutrients.
The process of introducing Bob to the world is a different story: Vainikka and his team are still trying to figure out exactly how to market their product, which they say can be mixed into bread, chocolate or other recipes to turn them into robust sources of protein. While they’re hoping to avoid appealing to only a niche market — say, beefcake protein powder addicts — they fear that it could be a hard sell trying to convince the wider world that what it wants is not a more environmentally friendly version of meat but in fact something entirely new. Perhaps, Vainkikka muses, they could start as an additive, accustoming the world to Bob with a label that explains that one’s sandwich bread now has as much protein as a slice of meat. Or maybe they should lean into the future angle: “This is what’s in the Matrix movies, by the way,” Vainikka points out.
Though The Matrix may not be the future millennials want to prepare for, one that’s less dependent on cows or even crops looks pretty good.