Could making food from microbial protein powder be the future?

A Finnish company is behind the latest breakthrough in food technology – a sustainable protein powder made using hydrogen and carbon
Could food made from protein powder be the future? | Illustration by Klawe Rzeczy

By Lauren Lewis

Lauren is an environment journalist with an interest in human interactions with the natural world.

29 Jan 2024

Last summer, diners at Fico, an Italian restaurant in Singapore, saw a new item on the menu: a chocolate gelato. But this wasn’t any normal gelato: it was made from Solein (pronounced ‘so-lean’). Or, in essence, thin air. 

Solein comes from a special bacteria that, unlike regular bacteria, uses hydrogen rather than sugar as a source of energy, and carbon dioxide as a source of carbon. This bacteria can multiply quickly in a small space, creating a food source.  

It is also creating quite a buzz. Being able to produce food from thin air could help tackle food shortages and feed the world’s growing population. It could allow some countries to increase their food self-sufficiency. And it could even be used to feed astronauts on long space missions. So how is it done? 

Solar Foods, the company behind Solein, isolates the microbe, which is not genetically modified, and ferments it in a bioreactor. This process involves feeding the microbe in the same way you would feed a plant, but using hydrogen, carbon dioxide, oxygen and nitrogen. 

The bacteria is then submerged in water with small bubbles of carbon dioxide captured as a waste product from industrial processes. Nutrients including calcium, phosphorus, and potassium – the same nutrients that plants absorb through their roots – are also added to the water. Electricity is then used to hydrolyse water to create hydrogen gas, which the microbes use to metabolise. 

The microbes multiply quickly as they are fed and the liquid thickens. This process is continuous but harvesting can take up to 70 hours. Small amounts of the thickened liquid are syphoned off and dehydrated, leaving a neutral-tasting bright yellow protein powder which looks a lot like turmeric. This is Solein. 

Microbial protein production can provide great environmental benefits by reducing land and water use for food production

The yellow powder which, according to Solar Foods, is made up of whole cells that are up to 70 per cent protein, is considered a ‘novel’ food. Novel foods are any not consumed “significantly” in the EU prior to May 1997 and can include new foods, foods from new sources, new substances used in food as well as new ways and technologies for producing food.  

Microbial protein production is not just being used for products intended for human consumption, however. Netherlands-based startup Deep Branch is using the same bacteria to create ingredients for animal feed. Its first product, Proton, is a single-cell protein developed to be a major ingredient in animal feed, making up between 10 and 20 per cent of the total volume. 

The ability to produce food in small spaces brings many benefits, including the opportunity to reduce emissions. The food chain has, throughout history, relied on traditional agriculture as its source. However, agriculture is responsible for up to 30 per cent of total global emissions, according to Our World in Data. Disconnecting food production from agriculture by cultivating microbial protein sources could help reduce these emissions, according to Dr Jani Sillman, a post-doctoral researcher in Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology’s sustainability and science department. “Microbial protein production can provide great environmental benefits by reducing land and water use for food production,” he says. 

Solar Foods believes the land efficiency for its product would be about 20,000 times greater than for traditional agriculture. Critics, however, have suggested the reality is closer to only 10 times greater land efficiency. 

The other problem is that microbial protein production is extremely energy intensive.“If renewable energy is used, then this microbial protein production is likely to be much better for the planet than traditional agriculture,” Dr Sillman tells The Parliament, “but it becomes much more difficult to say if fossil fuels are used.”  

He adds that the energy transition will be key to making microbial protein production more climate friendly than conventional farming in producing the same amount of nutrients. 

There are other ways microbial protein production can help the environment – by reducing the area of land used for arable production. Freeing up land from intensive agricultural production can allow soil, one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, to regenerate and store more carbon than before. 

Microbial protein production could also help tackle other problems, such as food shortages. Already 828 million people experience hunger every year. Climate change is expected to exacerbate food insecurity by causing more extreme weather events, such as droughts, floods, storms and heatwaves, that reduce crop yields. However, microbial protein sources are produced indoors in controlled conditions and are therefore not likely to be affected by climatic factors.  

Singapore, which approved Solein for commercial sale in October 2022 and has one of the fastest regulatory approval processes for novel foods, is hoping the protein source will help in its battle against food insecurity. 

The city-state imports 90 per cent of its population’s nutritional needs, making it vulnerable to fluctuations and shocks in the global food supply chain. Singapore has set a “30 by 30” goal to produce 30 per cent of the island’s food requirement by 2030, but using less than one per cent of the country’s land.  

Singapore’s food agency says this will require “us to grow more with less, in a highly productive, climate-resilient, and resource-efficient way” – this could mean microbial protein production. This biotechnology could also be used to tackle food insecurity in less developed states, or transported there as an alternative protein source. 

Microbial protein production is also, arguably, future-proof. For as long as the needed bacterium appears naturally or can be created, microbial protein can help fill the “massive, and growing, demand globally for protein”, Deep Branch CEO Rowe tells The Parliament. 

“This could be used both to feed animals which are eventually eaten by humans, and for direct human consumption,” Rowe adds. 

However, novel foods face a mountain of regulatory hurdles before they can be sold on commercial markets. In the European Union, novel food approval is a three-step process. 

“Companies that want to sell novel foods must submit a dossier to the European Commission, which does a suitability test for the substance using a basic set of requirement,” Wolfgang Gelbmann, a scientific officer in the novel foods team of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), tells The Parliament. 

“Once the Commission is satisfied, EFSA is invited to do a risk assessment of the substance,” he adds. “After a maximum of nine months, EFSA must publish a decision and the Commission has a further seven months to decide if the product should be made commercially available.” 

Solar Foods is hoping to get an opinion from EFSA in 2024 which, if positive, could mean approval for Solein to be sold in the EU in 2025. But even when microbial protein sources are approved as novel foods for commercial sale, will consumers want to eat them? 

Humans learn from early childhood that we prefer foods that are familiar to us. A food that is eaten internationally, but not in Europe, or is recognisable, such as insects, may still be considered familiar. However, new novel foods, such as protein made through microbial production, represent an entirely new food product. As a result, microbial protein sources are likely to have a slower uptake than recognisable novel foods, such as algae. 

Nearly 77 per cent of European consumers say they would not swap meat for insects or lab-grown meat as a protein source, according to a study by the European Consumer Organisation. A further 13 per cent say they are unsure about making the switch. 

Genetic modification-free plant-based alternatives (such as plant-based burgers) found greater acceptance. But nearly 44 per cent of respondents still say they are unwilling to replace meat with alternatives. 

However, it is not just an aversion to novel foods that may stymie microbial protein production. We are being encouraged to eat more wholefoods and avoid processed products to live a long and healthy life; Netflix’s hit docuseries Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones is just one example of this messaging. 

This means work will need to be done to change public perception around the nutritional validity of microbial protein sources. One way of tackling this issue is by partnering with major food manufacturing companies such as Nestlé and Unilever, according to senior vice-president of space and resilience at Solar Foods, Arttu Luukanen. 

“These big-name companies can use the microbial protein as an ingredient in their products and then it goes to retail with their customers,” Luukanen tells The Parliament. 

From the beginning of this year, Japanese food manufacturer Ajinomoto will start work on developing marketable products using Solein. Once these hurdles are overcome, microbial protein could become “essentially an infinite protein source”, Luukanen adds.  

Solar Foods is hoping to start commercial production of Solein at Factory 01 in Vantaa in Finland in the first half of the year. And Deep Branch is hoping to make its first product, Proton, commercially available by 2030. US competitor AirProtein opened its first farm in San Leandro, California, in 2023. So it seems the protein ball is rolling. 

Read the most recent articles written by Lauren Lewis - Sustainable ferries: Making maritime transport greener