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Finnish breakthrough: Making protein out of thin air and electricity

Researchers in Finland have successfully created a batch of single-cell protein by combining electricity and carbon dioxide, a revolutionary new development that can be used in food and animal feed applications.

Pikkulusikallinen vaaleanruskeaa rouhetta.
A spoonful of protein. Image: Lappeenrannan teknillinen yliopisto

A new protein production technique developed by Finnish scientists makes it possible to generate the essential nutrient anywhere renewable energy is available. The ground-breaking method could revolutionize the food and feed industries, significantly changing their effect on the planet's environment. The work is a joint project of the Lappeenranta University of Technology and the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.

"Some organisms have the ability to utilize hydrogen as a source of energy. Electricity from, for example, solar power, can enable this," says VTT's principal researcher Juha-Pekka Pitkänen.

The power to transform agriculture

The team estimates that energy from the sun can be used up to ten times more efficiently than it is at present. Today's protein-producing processes rely primarily on photosynthesis in plants, for example, tonnes of soybeans growing in fields that go on and on for kilometres.

"There's nothing wrong with photosynthesis, but this method benefits from a more direct path to the sun's power," Pitkänen says. "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."

The researchers are also developing the protein to be used as animal feed.

No fertilizer, no pesticides

Lappeenranta Technology University professor Jero Ahola says that compared to traditional agriculture, this new production method does not require a location with the right temperature, humidity or soil type. It would be completely automatised and closed, for example, in a shipping container facility built on the farm.

"It requires no pest-control substance, and it allows us to avoid any environmental impacts, such as runoffs into water systems or the formation of powerful greenhouse gases," he says.

Next: To make the process faster

In order for the product to be competitive, however, the production process must become more efficient. Production of one gram of protein now takes around two weeks.

"The idea is to develop the concept into a mass product, with a price that drops as the technology becomes more common," says Ahola.

Juha-Pekka Pitkänen laboratoriolaitteiden äärellä.
VTT researcher Juha-Pekka Pitkänen Image: Lappeenrannan teknillinen yliopisto

Pitkänen says the goal is a container-sized facility than can produce five kilos of single-celled protein in a day. He estimates that it will be another 2 to 3 years before the new unit would be up and running.

"In principle, we could then scale up by just constructing more containers and increasing the size of the reactors. Maybe ten years is a realistic timeframe for reaching commercial capacity, in terms of the necessary legislation and process technology," he says.

The study is part of the wide-ranging Neo-Carbon Energy research project in Finland that aims to develop a completely renewable and emission-free energy system. The Food from Electricity study is funded by the Academy of Finland and will run for four years.

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