A Finnish company called Solar Foods plans next month to start making a kilo of food a day from nothing but electricity, water and air.

The company will electrolyze water to produce hydrogen that is used, along with carbon dioxide and small amounts of trace elements, to feed microbes. 

The microbial cells, with a protein content of up to 60 percent and an amino acid composition similar to soybeans or algae, will be heat-treated to form a fine powder, similar in appearance and texture to dried milk.

Solar Foods CEO Pasi Vainikka said the product could be used to enrich widely consumed human foods such as bread or pasta. 

The company’s €1 million (USD $1.1 million) pilot plant, near the Finnish capital of Helsinki, is intended as a precursor to commercial-scale operations that could commence as early as the beginning of 2021, depending on European Food Authority (EFA) approval.

The EFA novel food regulation approval process involves animal and human testing and typically takes around two years, costing around €500,000 ($566,000), Vainikka told GTM. 

If it gets approval, Solar Foods will make an investment decision on commercial production and could move to large-scale manufacturing, producing protein for 50 million meals a year, within 12 months. “We are already able to scale,” Vainikka said. 

A full-scale plant would resemble a brewery, he said. Unlike a brewery, though, the microorganisms vital to the production process would feed off hydrogen and carbon dioxide instead of sugars from plant material. 

“This is a fundamental difference compared to any of the foods on the market, or technologies or ways to produce food,” said Vainikka. “This way, we can disconnect from land use completely.”

For the pilot plant, Solar Foods has secured a 100-percent-renewable electricity supply, based on hydropower, via the Finnish utility Fortum. In the future, said Vainikka, the source of electricity would not be crucial to the production process.

But for cost reasons and to help with consumer acceptance, the company would likely seek to power the manufacturing process with renewable energy, he said. “One scenario is you could make this food in deserts or in the Arctic,” he commented. 

“If we go to the cheapest electricity in the world, that is currently solar power in the sun belt,” he said.

Even with Nordic electricity prices, Vainikka said he believed the process could be competitive with mainstream soy, milk or meat production.

And based on a rock-bottom PV price of around $15 per megawatt-hour, it might even be competitive with monoculture soy grown for animal feed in South America, he said. “Surprisingly, this seems to work out economically,” he commented. 

Using hydrogen for food manufacturing would also be more financially attractive than using the gas for energy storage, he claimed.

Because a Solar Foods plant’s electricity supply would mainly be used to create hydrogen as a feedstock for bacterial growth, the industrial process would be able to tolerate daily variations in energy. 

In a grid setting, electrolyzer energy consumption could even be set to follow demand curves so usage increases at times of lower electricity pricing, according to Vainikka. 

In March of this year, Solar Foods bagged €2 million ($2.3 million) from Lifeline Ventures, VTT Ventures Oy and Green Campus Innovations Oy to perfect its food-from-air concept.

And in October, the company was selected for the European Space Agency’s Business Incubation Program to develop a system for producing proteins on space flights to Mars. For now, Solar Foods is not claiming its products could replace foods altogether. 

However, said Vainikka: “There is a portfolio of these organisms, so you could have mixtures in the future.” 

Technically, the Solar Foods process could scale up to replace most proteins in the human diet, potentially eliminating what scientists see as a major stressor to the environment. 

Already, 40 percent of arable land is used for meat production, said Vainikka, and this is expected to grow significantly along with a growing and more affluent global population. 

The question, Vainikka said, is whether consumers will bite on a steak replacement that is nothing more than air.