Could a Protein Made From Electricity Reduce World Hunger?

What would happen if we could use renewable energy to create food out of electricity and hydrogen? Could we feed the world?

That’s the question a group of Finnish researchers aims to answer. Scientists from the Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland conducted a joint study to produce a single-cell protein by using electricity, hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

That protein, they say, can be used to feed both people and animals. This project is part of a Neo-Carbon Energy research project carried out jointly by the LUT and VTT. The initiative strives to develop renewable and emission-free energy systems.

spoonful of powder

Is this powder the answer to world hunger? Photo credit: VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland

“It’s not so much different than making beer, but in making beer, of course, you use sugar as the raw material, but in this case we use hydrogen,” VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland senior scientist Juha-Pekka Pitkänen told the Smithsonian.

To make this powder, scientists begin with hydrogen-oxidizing bacteria. It goes into a small bioreactor with water and an electric water splitter, which tears apart the hydrogen and oxygen. The bacteria then consumes the hydrogen.

Following combination with atmospheric carbon and a few other helper substances — like phosphorus, ammonia and inorganic salts — this process produces a powder that is approximately 50 percent protein, 25 percent carbohydrate and 25 percent fats and nucleic acids.

“In the long term, protein created with electricity is meant to be used in cooking and products as it is. The mixture is very nutritious,” Pitkänen noted. “The consistency of the final product can be modified by changing the organisms used in the production.”

bioreactor

The bioreactor. Photo credit: VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland

Even more amazing, this process is completely portable and environmentally benign. It doesn’t rely on specific agricultural or soil conditions. It requires no sunlight or rain, and the temperature outdoors is irrelevant. And there’s no need for fertilizer or pesticides, meaning there’s no pollution-causing runoff into local waterways.

Researchers believe that, initially, this protein could be used to produce an alternative animal feed. If used in this way on a widespread basis, it would free up the vast acreage of farmland we use today to product crops to feed livestock. It could also help end critical environmental problems like the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest for cropland.

But I’d assert that we ought to be diving straight into step two of the researchers’ plan — using this protein to feed people.

After all, this sounds like a vegan protein source to me. Here’s a way to get those farmed animals out of the equation completely. If we began producing protein using renewable power in every place where food is needed, why would we need livestock at all?

Without all that livestock, greenhouse gases would take a definite downward plunge. This concept just keeps sounding better and better, doesn’t it?  Food from electricity is a potentially game changing discovery.

cows at trough

Photo credit: Thinkstock

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 795 million people were chronically undernourished between 2014 and 2016. With one fell swoop, this concept could change all that.

What would the world be like with everyone properly fed and no more need for factory farming? That’s my idea of heaven.

For now, the research team is working to make this process even more efficient. Currently, making food from electricity is about 10 times as efficient as photosynthesis. Even so, protein generation takes approximately two weeks to complete. It needs to be faster to be marketable and competitive.

But the researchers predict substantial improvements in just 10 years. Between this outstanding work and parallel efforts to create lab-grown, cultured meat, one decade may well be the difference between industrialized factory farming and a cruelty-free food system. I’m eager for that day to arrive. Are you?

Photo Credit: James Brooks/Flickr

61 comments

Jeramie D
Jeramie D4 days ago

Please let it be so.

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Janis K
Janis K11 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Anneka S
Anneka S13 days ago

Amazing! Maybe not ideal for everyday consumption, but it could be a solution to world hunger. Good for the researchers!

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Amanda M
Amanda Mcconnel13 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Amanda M
Amanda Mcconnel13 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Amanda M
Amanda Mcconnel13 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Maria R
Maria R15 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Margie F
Margie F17 days ago

Soon we will be able to have a pill for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

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Angela K
Angela K22 days ago

noted

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Doris F
Doris F22 days ago

synthetic food...no thanks

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