Protein made from thin air to feed the world

Delicious! How our artist, Tutu, imagines a roast turkey made out of air.

Could Solein save the world? As farming struggles, scientists in Finland have made a miracle protein out of air and electricity that could both reduce global emissions and feed millions.

A company in Finland is making an edible protein out of air, water and electricity. Solar Foods has announced that its artificially produced substance, named Solein, could soon rival soya as a leading portion of our global diet.

Solein was created by a team of scientists at universities in Finland using an idea originally developed by Nasa.

The protein is produced via a process of electrolysis, which separates the hydrogen and oxygen in water. That hydrogen is then mixed with minerals and carbon dioxide from the air we all breathe. In turn, this is fed to bacteria that produce the edible protein.

In its current form, Solein is a yellow powder that is good for making pancakes.

The idea of food being made out of thin air has got a lot of environmentally conscious people very excited.

A quarter of global fossil fuel emissions currently comes from food production. With a growing population and increasing concerns about land degradation and animal well-being, scientists and entrepreneurs around the world are looking for new, sustainable ways to produce food.

Plant-based meats from companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are now being served in fast-food restaurants like KFC and Burger King. Meanwhile, steaks grown from single cells in laboratories offer the potential of infinite meat without killing any animals.

However, there is something even more futuristic about making protein simply by feeding carbon dioxide and hydrogen to bacteria.

Solar Foods also uses sustainably sourced electricity and far less space than a traditional farm or crop. As more money is invested into the process and production increases in scale, the air-based protein will only get cheaper to make.

If all goes to plan, we will no longer need to keep so much livestock in poor conditions nor devote so much of the Earth’s surface to feeding ourselves.

In the words of environmentalist George Monbiot, farm-free foods like Solein are exciting because “we will soon be able to feed the world without devouring it”.

Could Solein literally save the world?

Hot air

Though exciting, Solein is still a while away from being mass produced. Right now, the output is measured in grams, not tonnes. If you want to really help change dietary habits, cut down on meat and eat more locally. There is always a danger that innovations like these are seen as panaceas. To overcome a problem like food production, we should all do our bit and not simply wait for a miracle.

Then again, encouraging bacteria to eat our CO2 and help transform it into food that both livestock and humans can eat is a wonderful achievement. Done correctly, it is a model for food production that does not rely on any fossil fuels or agriculture. If the electricity involved in the process is also sustainably sourced, then we will have the world’s first fully carbon-neutral nutrition.

You Decide

  1. Would you personally eat food made from air? Does anything make you hesitate when thinking about your answer?
  2. If plant-based or even air-based meats replaced meat altogether, what do you think should happen to all the livestock?

Activities

  1. In pairs, research and identify all the steps, procedures and people involved in producing a traditional steak burger. Present them to the class. The winner is the person who names the most steps correctly.
  2. In pairs, role-play being a customer who only wants to eat animal meat and a chef who wants to cook them a meal with Solein. Try to see what the most convincing arguments are for both sides and share them with the class.

Some People Say...

“Without electricity, the air would rot.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) US writer, philosopher and poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Solein is made by feeding hydrogen and carbon dioxide to bacteria. A quarter of global fossil-fuel emissions currently comes from food production. Creating Solein emits 100 times less greenhouse gases than the equivalent amount of meat. It contains 50% protein content; 5% to 10% fat, and 20% to 25% carbs. Solar Foods calls it “an entirely new kind of food that is both natural, and free from the burdens of agriculture”.
What do we not know?
How quickly it can become cheaper than less sustainable alternatives like meat and soya. We cannot yet be sure whether it can be produced at a big enough scale to feed the whole planet, while still only using renewably sourced electricity. We also do not know if people will actually want to eat it.

Word Watch

Nasa
The USA’s space agency, responsible for cutting-edge research and putting people on the Moon.
Electrolysis
A chemical reaction provoked by an electrical current.
Carbon dioxide
CO2. A greenhouse gas and a leading contributor to global warming. Also a natural part of the world’s air, and a large part of what animals breathe out.
Entrepreneurs
Business people focused on building new companies.
George Monbiot
Climate-conscious writer who generally believes we need to return more of the planet to natural processes, and trusting in the wild.
Panaceas
Single – often unrealistic – solutions to complex problems. The idea that one good thing can solve everything that is bad.
Carbon-neutral
A system or process that emits no extra carbon into the environment.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.