This startup makes high-tech protein from thin air by using solar energy

Production may begin this year.
Deena Theresa
Solar Food's Bioreactor
Solar Food's Bioreactor

Solar Foods, a Finnish food tech company famed for its approach toward alternative protein - made of microbes cultured with electricity and air, is ready to make giant strides in 2023. The company is building its first commercial-scale factory near Helsinki, Finland, that can make food directly from carbon dioxide, New Scientist reported.

"We are a bit behind schedule, but production may start just about in 2023," Pasi Vainikka, CEO of Solar Foods, told New Scientist. Vainikka added that the factory will be able to produce 100 tones per year, which will suffice for four or five million meals.

The alternative protein, Solein, and its usage in various foods have already been tested in a pilot factory for two years. Recently, Business Finland approved a €34 million grant funding to Solar Foods, making it the largest public grant funding for cellular agriculture in the world. In September 2022, Solar Foods was also selected to be a part of the European Commission's strategic hydrogen economy core.

This startup makes high-tech protein from thin air by using solar energy
Solein looks like a yellow powder (above in paste).

Here to replace animal-based nutrition

Solar Foods intends to create an environmentally-friendly way to feed ourselves. "We are here to replace animal-based nutrition, that’s the big mission I would say, for all plant-based and similar companies,” Vainikka told Food Matters Live. "The problem in the food system is, broadly speaking, [using] animals and industrialized animal keeping. Like it or not, it’s a fact. Growing and harvesting that kind of nourishment with significantly fewer resources [and without animals] is what we’re doing."

So what does the company do?

Solein resembles yellow powder that can be added to food. The animal-free protein can be created by first selecting a soil sample that is examined for best-quality organisms. Until a suitable microbe is ready, these are cultivated. They are then placed in a bioreactor where gas fermentation occurs.

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The microorganism feeds on dissolved hydrogen, and carbon dioxide is split from water by electricity during the process. It is then provided with mineral nutrients that permit it to make amino acids, carbohydrates, lipids, and vitamins. Later, excess moisture is removed from the Solein. The result is a dry powder enriched with protein.

The food can be grown with near-zero greenhouse gas emissions

If this electricity comes from solar and wind power, the food can easily be grown with near-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

In an interview with TechCrunch in September 2022, Vainikka said that Solein resembled existing foodstuffs. "So it’s very familiar, but it’s a bit [of a] new combination," he said, adding: "The taste is very mild, very neutral."

How can Solein fit into an evolved food production system? "Cereals, vegetables, fruits, herbs aren’t going anywhere," Vainikka told TechCrunch. "So if we go back to the original problem — 80 percent of all the problems that have to do with food, whether it’s loss of natural habitat or forest loss or whatever, has to do with the industrialized animal production … So actually Solein could solve 80 percent of the problem but 20 percent of the calories because mostly we are, on a calorie basis, eating carbohydrates."