Solar Foods is commercializing a protein made from captured carbon dioxide.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated July 15, 2019
Credit: Jose A. Bernat Bacete/Getty Images

Increasing carbon dioxide levels are one of the primary causes of climate change. Beyond simply reducing emissions, some scientists believe it might make sense to literally suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But here’s an even crazier-sounding idea: What if we could turn carbon dioxide into food and eat it? A startup in Finland called Solar Foods is actually planning to bring a product like this to market, resulting in the “most environmentally friendly food there is.”

Back in 2017, we covered Dr. Juha-Pekka Pitkanen when he was working on this technology as a scientist at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. His efforts apparently proved successful and commercial enough to team up with Pasi Vainikka, who now serves as CEO of their joint venture, Solar Foods. They bill their results as “food out of thin air,” and as futuristic as it sounds, their company is already making mockups their first product — Solein — which they hope to be selling as soon as 2021.

Solein begins life as a powder that is produced in a process somewhat akin to winemaking. However, instead of yeast, Solar Foods uses a proprietary bacteria, and instead of grapes, they feed the bacteria carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and other nutrients. The resulting liquid can be dried into a powdered protein that Vainikka told FoodNavigator-USA is a bit like wheat flour, but with very little flavor outside of a slight touch of umami. “The taste will be made in the final application, whether you make an ice cream, a plant-based meat alternative, bread, or pasta,” he said according to the site.

Of course, the question becomes why make a food that’s just meant to taste like other foods? That’s where Solein’s environmental credentials come into play. Not only does Vainikka say that the powder is better for the planet than meat, he says its more environmentally-friendly than plant-based proteins, too — 100 times better than any other protein by his estimates, using 250 times less water and ten times less land than soy. Solein essentially allows them to “disconnect food production from agriculture,” as he puts it. “We thought that making food from carbon dioxide, water captured from the air, and renewable electricity,” he was quoted as saying, “would make for the most environmentally friendly food there is.”