Image: Solar Foods' Solein microbe-based alternative to plant and animal protein is produced with green hydrogen and oxygen.

Green Hydrogen Goes To Bat For Sustainable Food Systems

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New green hydrogen technology is slowly crawling into the global economy, deploying electrolysis to squeeze hydrogen from water instead of natural gas or coal. So far, much of the interest has focused on green hydrogen as a transportation fuel. However, food systems are also a significant sector in need of a decarbonization makeover. The latest development involves a futuristic electrolyzer-based protein-growing process from the Finnish startup Solar Foods.

Green Hydrogen To Push Fossil Energy Aside

There is quite a lot to unpack here, so let’s start with the electrolyzer angle. Electrolysis, also known as “water-splitting,” is not a new technology. An electrical current in the presence of a catalyst can separate hydrogen gas from water. Until recently though, the technology was impractical for commercial scale hydrogen production.

One problem is cost. A leading expense is the cost of the catalyst. It typically involves something expensive like platinum, but alternative formulations are emerging. Other technology improvements, a maturing supply chain, and economies of scale should also contribute to a downward trend in overall electrolyzer costs in the long run, though BloombergNEF and other analysts have warned of a bumpy road ahead.

The other issue in need of a resolution is the source of the electricity to run the electrolyzers. Using fossil energy to produce “green” hydrogen is not a particularly sustainable solution, but until recent years, the only widely available non-carbon alternatives were hydropower and nuclear energy. Now utility-scale wind and solar power plants are opening up new siting opportunities for electrolyzer facilities.

Green Hydrogen For Food Systems

Photoelectrochemistry is another green hydrogen technology in the works, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves. For now, the commercial promise of green hydrogen is centered on electrolysis, and electrolysis manufacturers are on the hunt for new markets. Food systems are already on their radar, as green hydrogen can be deployed to remove fossil energy from ammonia fertilizer.

Solar Foods is taking it up to a whole new level. The company has developed a system for producing large quantities of a natural microorganism, fed by carbon dioxide along with green hydrogen and oxygen from electrolysis. The end result is a new protein called Solein®, which can be added to ordinary ingredients without changing the taste.

Described as similar in macronutrient content to dried soy or algae, Solein contains 65-70% protein, 5-8% fat, 10-15% dietary fiber, and 3-5% mineral nutrients.

Solar Foods has been producing Solein only in small batches at its lab near Helsinki for markets in Singapore, where it has already received approval from food regulators.

A Solein snack bar and a chocolate gelato are among the offerings currently available, which doesn’t sound particularly ambitious. However, earlier today the company announced the start of operations at Factory 01, its first full-scale Solein production facility, located in Vantaa, Finland.

In contrast to the small-batch lab operation, Factory 01 is designed to produce up to 160 tons of Solein per year. On a daily basis, Solar Foods estimates that its commercial scale bioreactor can produce the same amount of protein as the milk from a 300-cow dairy farm.

Apparently we ain’t seen nothing yet. Factory 01 will double as an R&D facility leading to next-level scale-up. “That’s why Factory 02 will eventually scale up the bioprocess as well as the production process: it would not be located in an industrial park, it would more likely fill an industrial park,” Solar Foods CEO and co-founder Pasi Vainikka said in a press statement.

What’s The Impact On Water Resources?

World water resources are already in upheaval due to climate change and other factors, so it’s fair to ask how green hydrogen fits into the picture. After all, the general rule of thumb is nine liters of water are needed to produce one kilogram of hydrogen.

That sounds like a lot, though other energy systems also require water. In addition, green hydrogen advocates note that some production systems are designed to recycle the water (here’s an example from the steelmaking industry). Seawater and wastewater are also emerging as alternative water sources.

To the extent that green hydrogen replaces fossil energy, an overall sustainability benefit for water resources can emerge, and the sustainability angle comes into sharper focus when electrolysis is applied to food production.

If you caught that thing about replacing 300 cows at a dairy farm, Solar Foods claims a similar savings compared to food crop farming. “Growing a kilogram of Solein requires approximately 1% of the water and 5% of the arable land that growing an equivalent amount of plant protein would, and creates only a fifth of the carbon dioxide emissions in the process,” the company explains.

“Solein is produced using a bioprocess where microbes are fed with gases (carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and oxygen) and small amounts of nutrients,” they add. “The bioprocess resembles winemaking, with carbon dioxide and hydrogen replacing sugar as the source of carbon and energy, respectively.”

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The EU Has A Hydrogen Economy Plan

The media focus on hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles has been distracting attention away from other markets where green hydrogen could act as a powerful decarbonizer, so it’s time for some catch-up.

Solar Foods notes that Factory 01 is the first hydrogen project to be completed under the European Commission’s “Important Project of Common European Interest” program.

The IPCEI program selected Solar Foods for approval as a hydrogen project in September of 2022, based on the company’s €600 million investment program including R&D towards Factory 02.

The approval led to a grant of  €34 million from Business Finland to Solar Foods. According to the company, that represented the “single largest public grant funding for cellular agriculture in the world.”

Hold on to your hats. Fresh off its qualification as a Nasdaq Green Equity company on April 11, Solar Foods notes that it is pursuing plans to enter the US market sometime later this year. Plans are also in the works for the EU and UK markets.

Green Hydrogen, With More Green

CleanTechnica reached out to Solar Fuels for some additional information on the source of power for the Factory 01 electrolyzers, and they informed us that the facility is sourcing its electricity through RECs (renewable energy credits), primarily consisting of Nordic hydropower.

The Nordic power market includes Denmark, which is not particularly known for its hydropower resources.  However, the other members of the region — Sweden and Norway, along with Finland — make up the difference.

“The region comprises thousands of hydropower generators with over 50 GW of installed capacity in total and approximately 200 TWh of annual generation (~50% of the region’s total), depending on the hydrological conditions,” assesses the energy data firm Energy Exemplar.

Meanwhile, the local utility Vantaa Energy is moving forward with a carbon-neutral-to-negative plan, beginning with the goal of eliminating fossil fuels from its portfolio by 2026.

As for here in the US, the Energy Department’s $7 billion Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub program is providing a mixed bag of funding for new green hydrogen, not-so-green hydrogen, and downright dirty hydrogen projects.

In the latest development, the US Treasury Department has agreed to reviewed a proposed tax credit formula that could make or break the program, so stay tuned for more on that.

Image: Solar Foods’ Solein microbe-based alternative to plant and animal protein is produced with green hydrogen and oxygen.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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