Honestly, this sounds like it belongs in a dystopian sci-fi future. Oh, wait. That’s actually the present now. Though I’ll admit, this is pretty cool and it actually makes me ever so slightly optimistic. As the hunt for new sources of sustainable protein continues unabated, a few companies are creating protein quite literally from thin air.
A Finnish startup called Solar Foods has developed a process that uses renewable energy and carbon dioxide to create a protein-rich powder that it markets under the brand name Solein. The process uses renewable energy to split water cells into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is combined with CO2, along with potassium, sodium, and other nutrients. This concoction is fed to microbes, which then create an edible ingredient that is 65-70% protein, 10-15% dietary fibers, 5-8% fat, and 3-5% mineral nutrients, including iron and B vitamins. According to the company, the macronutrient composition of the cells is very similar to that of soy or algae. Solein is said to contain all the nine essential amino acids needed by the human body.
The Solein protein powder has a yellow color and no underlying flavor. The color is from the carotenoids that are naturally present in the ingredient.
Source: Solar Foods
Solar Foods’ process to create protein could be groundbreaking as it completely severs the ties between agriculture and food. The protein is grown in vats, so the significant agricultural inputs that are used are no longer needed in the equation. This includes land, water for irrigation, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and energy. It also means that we can reduce our dependence on livestock and fish stocks. By moving away from these sources, we could see a significant drop in our carbon emissions. According to the company, Solein pollutes 5X less than plant production and 200X less than beef production. Solein production emits 1kg CO2 equivalent/kg of protein. Plants have 5kg CO2e/kg protein and beef 200kg CO2e/kg protein.
Because of how and where Solein is produced, it can actually be made anywhere in the world, without having to worry about vast tracts of arable land, copious amounts of water, and climatic conditions. In fact, Solar Foods claims that Solein could eliminate most of the emissions associated with modern food systems, which account for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions.
And this may make it one of the most sustainable protein sources around if it can be scaled and the final product gains consumer acceptance.
Solein makes its market debut in Singapore
In September 2022, the Singapore Food Agency granted Solein its first novel food regulatory approval, which approves the import, manufacture, and sale of food products using Solein in Singapore. Solar Foods has also filed for novel food status in the EU and UK and plans to apply to get Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) assessment in the US.
While these will have an impact on Solar Foods’ ability to market the products, consumer acceptance may be a whole different ball game. Many consumers are still wary of genetically modified foods and novel foods like this alternative protein made from CO2 and electricity is likely to seem way too Frankenstein’s monster for many, especially when there is also a growing demand for “natural” food. But Solein’s versatility and its climate-friendly messaging may hold appeal to a significant audience.
Across most markets, alternative protein is still a relatively new topic; within categories, we looked at where they lay in terms of growth and select countries. Across the four countries chosen, dairy is in the dormant stage but is seeing positive growth, indicating that consumers are more open to alternatives in this category.
Source: Ai Palette Foresight Engine
Given the growth of consumer interest in alternative protein in dairy and to perhaps win over consumer approval quickly, Solar Foods chose to make their product debut with ice cream.
In June 2023, the company partnered with a Singapore-based restaurant called Fico to develop a dessert made with this novel microbial protein. The dessert – Solein Chocolate Gelato – replaces dairy protein with the Solein protein powder along with vegetable oils. According to Solar Foods, Solein can be used to make ice cream without the use of additives. And because the powder has no unwanted flavors or off-notes, no masking agents are needed.
In addition to the gelato, other dishes created by professional chefs using Solein include the following, highlighting the versatility of the ingredient:
- Kansai-style Ozoni Misolein Soup
- Solein Pasta with Singapore Pesto
- Smoked Pumpkin with Solein Salted Egg Sauce
- Fennel Bergamot Granita with Lime and Fennel Solein Bean Curd
Other startups are turning to CO2 for food
British-Dutch biotech start-up Deep Branch has designed a biochemical transformation process that converts CO2 into a protein-rich powder for animal feed. The single cell protein, called Proton, has around 70% protein. This is a higher content than natural soy, which has around 40%, and is one of the main animal feed ingredients. Around 80% of the world’s soy crops are used to raise cattle for beef and dairy products. This alternative may prove to be a more sustainable option. Proton can also be used to make fishmeal for aquaculture.
California-based ingredient processing startup NovoNutrients captures industrial carbon dioxide waste and upcycles it into a high-grade protein that can be used for human and animal food. The company combines CO2, hydrogen, and a naturally occurring microbe, then ferments it in proprietary bioreactors to create a high-grade protein that can have multiple uses.
New York-based Air Company has made AIR Vodka, an “impurity-free vodka made from CO2,” which the company also says is the world’s cleanest and most sustainable spirit. The CO2 used in the production of this product is captured and sourced from industrial plants before it is emitted into the atmosphere. It is cooled, pressurized, and liquified. The company’s electrolyzer splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen is released as clean air into the atmosphere, and the hydrogen gas is fed into the Carbon Conversion Reactor with the captured CO2. The reactor contains a tubular, fixed-bed flow system. The CO2 and H2 rise to each tube, which are filled with the company’s patented catalyst. This causes a chemical reaction that produces a reactor liquid composed of alcohols, alkanes, and water. These components are separated through a distillation process. The water is fed back into the electrolyzer to start the process all over again.
Source: Air Company
The use of a greenhouse gas to create food is perhaps one of the most important innovations this side of the millennium. It is essentially fighting fire with fire (or more precisely, CO2 with CO2) which has the potential to be a game-changer in the fight for the planet.