Doc in Back to the Future: ‘Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads.’ Can electricity bring single cell feed protein to new heights?

By Jane Byrne contact

- Last updated on GMT

© VTT Finland
© VTT Finland

Related tags: Carbon dioxide

Using electricity and carbon dioxide (CO2), researchers at the Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland have produced a batch of single-cell protein. 

They say the biomass could be used in food and animal feed and that the protein can be produced anywhere renewable energy, such as solar energy, is available. 

The project, which is currently at lab scale, has received funding for three years from the Academy of Finland. “However, we want to attract additional investment to accelerate progress. The project has attracted a lot of interest in Finland and there has been a lot of reaction to it on social media,”​ Juha-Pekka Pitkänen, principal Scientist at VTT, told us.

We previously reported on a biogas to feed protein research mode​l​ that he was involved in but Pitkänen said VTT was not able to attract additional funding for that initiative as it was challenging to demonstrate profitability.

“So, now, what we have done is upped the ante, increased the stakes, using a protein production system that is completely renewable and emission-free.”

The protein created with electricity can be used as a fodder replacement, thus releasing land areas for other purposes, he said.

Method 

The method involves conducting renewable electricity into a bioreactor, breaking down water into hydrogen and oxygen. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide is also fed into the reactor. The microbes in the reactor are supplied with nutrients, such as nitrogen, sulphur, and phosphorus, as well as other micronutrients. This makes the microbes grow and multiply. 

At the beginning of the food manufacturing process, the mass is dried to remove water. The outcome is a compound that reminds protein powder or dry yeast.

We see that electricity prices are going down and installations are increasing making renewable sources plentiful,"​ said Pitkänen. 

proteinproducedwith elec
According to estimates by the researchers, the process of creating food from electricity can be nearly 10 times as energy-efficient as common photosynthesis, which is used for cultivation of soy and other products. © VTT Finland

The researchers, he said, are also studying how best to capture CO2, an important component in the protein production process. “We could get it from the air, and then production would not be bound to any location, or we could source it from brewery or other fermentation based industries or we could take it from power plants but that would be a fossil fuel source so not so ideal.”

For the product to be competitive, the production process must become even more efficient. Currently, the production of one gram of protein takes around two weeks, using laboratory equipment that is about the size of a coffee cup. 

Pilot scale 

They are hoping to move to a pilot scale of production now. They want to produce material in quantities sufficient for development and testing of fodder and food products. “We are shifting to the three liter size. What we are hoping to achieve is 5kg of biomass productivity per day. That would need 60 sq meters of solar panels for the electricity source and would allow the production of 2.5kg of protein daily.”

The food sector offers a higher margin for such a protein material compared to the feed sector, but feed offers a quick route to market, albeit a lower price, he added.

“If we compare our product to the competing one – soy protein – the difference is clear. Growing soy protein requires sunlight, moisture, soil, and a certain temperature. In other words, the conditions must be right, and the soy must finally be transported to Finland.

“The method we are studying is independent of the surrounding environment and is ecological,"​ said Professor Jero Ahola of LUT. 

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