Ambient air carbon capture has come in for its share of ridicule over the years, but fans of the technology finally have something to cheer about. As applied to farming, carbon can be plucked from the air to boost crop yields. All that’s needed is an assist from solar power and some other equipment. An international research team has the goods to prove it, only the crops in question ain’t no ordinary food crops.
Future Farming: Microbial Protein Edition
If you’re guessing microbial protein powder is in the mix, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. Researchers have been looking into the production of microbial protein as an energy efficient, water saving, and land conserving alternative to farming for conventional animal and plant proteins.
Microbial protein refers to just what you might think it does: tiny bits of living matter in the form of algae, yeast, fungi, or bacteria, murdered and dried into a powder.
That doesn’t sound too appetizing, but back in 2016, researchers took note that the “time has come to re‐assess the current potentials of producing protein‐rich feed or food additives in the form of algae, yeasts, fungi and plain bacterial cellular biomass, producible with a lower environmental footprint compared with other plant or animal‐based alternatives.”
They also observed that non-technological roadblocks are in the way.
“In order for microbial protein as feed or food to become a major and sustainable alternative, addressing the challenges of creating awareness and achieving public and broader regulatory acceptance are real and need to be addressed with care and expedience,” they wrote.
Sure enough, animal feed is the leading market for microbial protein today, with aquaculture being the main driver.
As for humans, microbial protein hasn’t quite caught hold in the popular imagination yet. However, it is emerging as a health supplement, so that’s a start.
Solar Power (& Carbon Capture) For Better Microbial Protein Farming
If microbial protein powder is to become the food of the future, investors need to be convinced that it is a money-maker compared to conventional crops, and that’s where the new research comes in.
Earlier this year, an international research team studied a microbial protein farming method that deploys solar power with carbon capture along with two other necessary components, land and nutrients.
“The study carried out an analysis of the energy requirements for each step, from the very start to the end product, taking into account: electricity generation (from solar panels), electrochemical production of energy-rich substrate for the microbes, microbe cultivation, harvesting, and processing the protein-rich biomass,” explained Göttingen University, which was the former home of first author on the study, Dorian Leger.
“We show that the production of microbial foods outperforms agricultural cultivation of staple crops in terms of caloric and protein yields per land area at all relevant solar irradiance levels. These results suggest that microbial foods could substantially contribute to feeding a growing population and can assist in allocating future limited land resources,” the researchers concluded.
Let’s Get Excited About The Solar Power & Protein Powder Mashup
For all the juicy details, look up “Photovoltaic-driven microbial protein production can use land and sunlight more efficiently than conventional crops” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Meanwhile, it appears that the solar power plus carbon capture angle is not waiting around to leap the Valley of Death that can trap promising new technology in the lab forever.
Over in Finland, a startup called Solar Foods has just nailed down the first ever investment from the new Finnish Climate Fund, to the tune of €10 million. That pumps Solar Foods’s finanical profile up to a total of €35 million to commericialize its proprietary Solein® microbial protein powder.
Solar Foods appears to have taken a look back at the 2016 research, and they are not taking the public awareness angle for granted.
The company is pitching its product straight to the tech-savvy, transparency-demanding foodie of the future.
“Solar Foods has turned sci-fi into reality — it is now possible to produce nutritionally complete protein using carbon dioxide in the air and electricity as its primary raw materials,” the company enthuses, explaining that its first industrial-scale demonstrator facility in Finland will include “the Solein Experience Hub and a future-food bar to provide citizens with an entirely new level of transparency in food production.”
“We want to disconnect food production from the accelerating consumption of natural resources. It is fascinating to be part of making this happen,” they add.
As for the aesthetic experience, Solar Foods has that covered as well.
“Solein vanishes into daily meals, while at the same time maintaining its rich nutritional value and offering a unified solution that caters to virtually every imaginable meal of today and tomorrow,” explains Solar Foods CTO and co-founder Juha-Pekka Pitkänen, adding that “Our vision is to change the way food is produced. The world has hope. The food of the future is no longer a utopia, it is already being produced.”
Solar Power Plus Carbon Capture For The Sustainable The Farm Of The Future
Sweet. Don’t break out the knives and forks just yet, though. Solar Foods is looking to start operations at the new facility in 2023, so let’s take this opportunity to take a closer look at the solar power angle.
Solar Foods estimates that Solein’s comparative greenhouse gas emissions involved in Solein production are only about 1% compared to meat protein, and 20% compared to plant protein production, partly due to the use of solar power to generate electricity for ambient air carbon capture and other systems.
If you’re thinking that the emerging field of agrivoltaics could possibly come into play, that’s possible. Agrivoltaics refers to the combination of solar power with farming practices that conserve soil and build soil health. The trend has already caught on among livestock farmers, who graze sheep and cattle amongst the arrays of solar panels on their land. The solar power plus farming trend is also coming into vogue as a means of expanding pollinator habitats.
Solar Foods envisions parking its systems in deserts where regular food crops can’t grow, but in other areas the solar farm component of the system could do double duty as a host for pollinator habitats or shade-tolerant crops, providing an additional layer of sustainability pixie dust to microbial protein farming.
Solar Power & The Fourth Agricultural Revolution
Commercial agriculture has changed over the years, but solar power is always at the heart of it.
As Solar Foods explained in a recent blog post, taking things down to the cellular level is the next logical step, sustainably speaking.
“It is being called the fourth agricultural revolution. The first one taking place when humans started farming around 12,000 years ago, the second was the reorganisation of farmland after the Middle Ages, and the third (also known as the Green Revolution) was the introduction of chemical fertilisers and pesticides alongside heavy machinery and mass production from the 1950s onwards,” Solar Foods wrote.
When you put it that way, “cellular agriculture” is not even as much of a switcheroo as the transition from the Middle Ages to industrial farming. It’s just more industrial farming, fine tuned with 21st century technology including artificial intelligence, robots, gene editing, and of course, carbon capture and solar power for maximum sustainability.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Image: Microbial protein farming with solar power and ambient air carbon capture courtesy of Göttingen University.
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