The futuristic method could bring a source of protein to deserts and other extreme environments.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated July 27, 2017
Science Photo Library / Getty Images

Farming requires a lot of resources. In a perfect world, it’d be a lot simpler to be able to create food out of thin air. That idea may sound more like science fiction than actual science, but a team of researchers in Finland would beg to differ: They’ve discovered a way to create an edible protein using electricity instead of traditional growing methods.

Granted, these scientists – who come from the Lappeenranta University of Technology and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland – aren’t snapping their fingers and making a bushel of tomatoes appear. The process requires a portable bioreactor that contains water, microbes and nutrients. However, once set up, the bioreactor only needs an electrical current and carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere to trigger a chemical reaction inside. After separation and drying, the result is a powdery, edible protein that can be used in food or as animal feed. “The mixture is very nutritious, with more than 50 percent protein and 25 percent carbohydrates,” Juha-Pekka Pitkanen, Principal Scientist at VTT, said. “The rest is fats and nucleic acids. The consistency of the final product can be modified by changing the organisms used in the production.” Pehaps mixing this powder with water will produce the next take on Soylent?

Though eating a strange powdery protein may sound a bit unappetizing, creating food in this way has a number of advantages over other methods of farming or growing livestock. First, this process can be up to ten times more energy efficient than photosynthesis. Second, the locations where it can be used are far more flexible. “In practice, all the raw materials are available from the air,” said Pitkanen. Professor Jero Ahola of LUT further explained, “Compared to traditional agriculture, the production method currently under development does not require a location with the conditions for agriculture, such as the right temperature, humidity or a certain soil type.”

Ahola also pointed out that the process is more environmentally friendly: “The method requires no pest-control substances. Only the required amount of fertiliser-like nutrients is used in the closed process. This allows us to avoid any environmental impacts, such as runoffs into water systems or the formation of powerful greenhouse gases.”

The hope is that technology like this could eventually be used to fight world hunger. “In the future, the technology can be transported to, for instance, deserts and other areas facing famine,” Pitkanen stated. “One possible alternative is a home reactor, a type of domestic appliance that the consumer can use to produce the needed protein.” Hi, honey, I’m home. Fire up the bioreactor! It’s dinner time!