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30 July 2017

Electric protein reactors make food out of carbon dioxide

This spoonful of single-celled protein powder is the product of carbon dioxide and electricity. It could free-up crop production used by livestock. Picture: Lappeenranta University of Technology

TAKE one serve of carbon dioxide. Apply high voltage. Wait a few weeks … and enjoy a meal of single-cell protein. It may not be a culinary delight, but it could feed our future.

The creation of artificial food out of thin air is the result of a study by research groups in Finland.

And they say the Food from Electricity program is 10-times more energy efficient than the photosynthesis of plants.

Such protein powder is not about to garnish our plates.

Yet.

A food replicator produces a fully-formed meal out of nowhere on Star Trek: Voyager. We're not quite there yet, but science has proven it can use electricity and carbon dioxide to make single-cell proteins.

A food replicator produces a fully-formed meal out of nowhere on Star Trek: Voyager. We’re not quite there yet, but science has proven it can use electricity and carbon dioxide to make single-cell proteins.Source:Supplied

But it may soon be reducing the strain on our crops by providing an alternative source of fodder for animal feeds.

Ultimately, protein ‘reactors’ have the potential to create the building blocks of meals aboard long-duration space flights and as a rapid-response counters to famine.

“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 per cent carbohydrates. The rest is fats and nucleic acids.”

FREE FOOD

The protein’s greatest selling point is in its ingredients.

Sun light. And carbon dioxide.

“In practice, all the raw materials are available from the air,” Pitkänen says. “In the future, the (solar powered) 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.”

An array of coffee-cup reactors which, in the space of a fortnight, can produce a spoonful of single-celled proteins.

An array of coffee-cup reactors which, in the space of a fortnight, can produce a spoonful of single-celled proteins.Source:Supplied

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The United Nations estimates about one in nine of the world’s population — or 795 million — are undernourished. Such technology could help alleviate this growing crisis.

It could do this by reducing livestock demand for grains. This also may help keep meat affordable as the world’s crops come under increasing pressure.

It takes four times as much energy to feed a chicken than the protein value carried in its flesh. When it comes to cattle, that ratio is 54:1, lamb 50:1, 14:1 for milk, 17:1 for pork and 26:1 for eggs.

So taking grains out of the equation represents a major freeing-up of food stock for human consumption.

ENVIRONMENTAL FEEDBACK

The Finnish researchers say they also hope the technology will help reduce the need for land clearance, and allow existing crop zones to be reforested.

“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 Professor Jero Ahola of LUT.

A 'protein reactor' developed by Finnish scientists. It zaps into existence a powder which is 50 per cent protein, 25 per cent carbohydrate - with the rest made up of fats and nucleic acids.

A ‘protein reactor’ developed by Finnish scientists. It zaps into existence a powder which is 50 per cent protein, 25 per cent carbohydrate – with the rest made up of fats and nucleic acids.Source:Supplied

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“This allows us to use a completely automatised process to produce the animal feed required in a shipping container facility built on the farm.”

It also does away with the resource and energy-intensive need for fertilisers and pest-controls.

“This allows us to avoid any environmental impacts, such as runoffs into water systems or the formation of powerful greenhouse gases,” he says.

GREEN MACHINE

While the energy efficiency of the process is reported to be 10-times better than photosynthesis, plenty of work remains to be done to make protein reactors commercially viable.

At the moment, the experimental coffee-machine sized benchtop facilities take about a fortnight to zap into existence one gram of protein powder.

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Upscaling and speeding up the process is the next objective of the Finnish researchers.

“The idea is to develop the concept into a mass product, with a price that drops as the technology becomes more common, Professor Ahola says. “The schedule for commercialisation depends on the economy.”

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