A team of researchers in Finland may have found the answer to our sustainable food woes, and it lies within the air we breathe.
Using little more than carbon dioxide-filled air, a high voltage, harmless microbes and a few weeks’ gestation period, researchers have engineered edible proteins. According to the Finnish team, the process is ten-times more energy efficient than photosynthesis in plants.
The research team sees great potential in easing our reliance on crop foods by turning to protein reactors. It’s thought that they could, one day, help sustain travellers on long-duration space flights, although it’s a long way off something like Star Trek’s replicator.
“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 Research. “The mixture is very nutritious, with more than 50% protein and 25% carbohydrates. The rest is fats and nucleic acids.”
“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.”
The researchers hope that, by using this method of food production in the future, we can rely less upon agricultural land and reclaim it back to woodland or its natural purpose. It could also be used to fill the ever-growing need for housing across a nation. It would additionally mean feeding animals with crops could be done on a much smaller scale – making farming far more sustainable than it currently is.
Of course, we’re a long way off this reality. The current model – which is around the same size as a countertop coffee maker – takes two weeks to generate a single gram of protein powder. Not only is that nowhere near enough for one powder-guzzling gym bro, it’s not even a speck of dust in the mountain of protein needed to feed the world.
However, it does show that the science of making something out of – seemingly – nothing is possible beyond internet commenters. It’s also the first step towards the high-tech replicators of Star Trek fame. Combine an efficient, future version of the protein reactor along with a 3D-protein printer and voila: fancy food from out of nowhere.