Electricity + Bacteria = Dinner?

Anyone remember the Jetsons? You know, that popular animated sitcom about a futuristic suburban family? Or how about Futurama – any of you watch that? Actually, take your pick of any popular Sci-Fi movie, show, or book starting from as early as the early 1900’s. Do you know the one trope that keeps popping up in most of them? Food Pills.


Jetsons-Food-Pill.jpeg

Source: EasyLiving.my


It all started at the 1893 World’s Fair when suffragette Mary Elizabeth Lease proposed the food pill as a scientific solution to the kitchen drudgery forced upon women –

“in condensed form from the rich loam of the earth, the life force or germs now found in the heart of the corn, in the kernel of wheat, and in the luscious juices of the fruits. A small phial of this life from the fertile bosom of Mother Earth will furnish men with substance for days. And thus the problems of cooks and cooking will be solved.”


p00pc0xx

Source: http://www.ichef.bbci.co.uk


Almost all futurists and science fiction authors from the 1900’s thought that meals in the next century are going to be little white capsules that were designed to imitate a full three-course meal. Well, apart from the makers of the cult classic Soylent Green; They… uh… they had an entirely different picture in their heads. Most people, though, thought of artificially grown laboratory food. Nutritious, portable, and convenient. Well, we all know that the 21st-century menu did not turn out quite that way. Instead, we got Breatharianism. Seriously, check this out – http://www.snopes.com/breatharians

However, the concept of synthetically generated food is making a comeback, albeit in a slightly different packaging and with a different aim in mind. We all know that Hunger is one of the biggest problems plaguing humanity (amirite, college blokes?). In fact, it is right at the top of the UN’s Millenium Goals. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that some 795 million people around the world go to bed hungry every night. A combination of our exponential population growth (thanks, Mum and Dad) and the effect of Climate Change on agricultural practices, this problem isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Scientists around the world have been involved in a concerted effort to find innovative solutions, from developing lab-grown meats and alternative proteins like the Impossible Burger to drought-resistant crops.

On July 19, 2017, a team of Finnish researchers reported that they have successfully created a batch of edible single-cell protein using a system powered only by renewable energy (solar, wind, etc.). The entire process requires only electricity, water, carbon dioxide, and bacteria. This ground breaking research was born out of a collaboration between Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) and the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and is being touted as a heavyweight contender in the ‘Science Vs. Human Suffering’ championship match. The picture below is a gram of the synthetic foodstuff.


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Credit: Laboratories at VTT – The synthetic protein powder


 

On July 19, 2017, a team of Finnish researchers reported that they have successfully created a batch of edible single-cell protein using a system powered only by renewable energy (solar, wind, etc.). The entire process requires only electricity, water, carbon dioxide, and bacteria.

The magic happens when the raw ingredients – a mixture of water, bacteria, and nutrients like nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus – undergoes electrolysis, which is a chemical process where an electric current is passed through a liquid. You can watch this video for a crash course on how that bad boy works. The electrolysis is conducted in a small container (the fancy name for which is a Bio-reactor) and Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo – you have a mushy powder leftover in the tank that is made up of more than 50 percent protein and 25 percent carbohydrates, as well as fats and nucleic acids. Think of it as your morning oatmeal powder but with twice the lack of flavor. While some people may shy away from calling it actual ‘food’, it is definitely nutritious enough for consumption by humans and animals. And in areas where traditional agriculture is not viable (think famine ridden areas and arid infertile deserts), it will certainly be a godsend. The process does not depend on environmental factors, meaning that it could feed people at a constant rate, anywhere in the world — Jero Ahola, a Professor at LUT, said in the press release that it “does not require a location with the conditions for agriculture, such as the right temperature, humidity or a certain soil type.”


food-from-electricity-3.jpg

Credit: Laurie Nygren – Diagrammatic Representation of Process


 

Think of it as your morning oatmeal powder but with twice the lack of flavor. While some people may shy away from calling it actual ‘food’, it is definitely nutritious enough for consumption by humans and animals.

The team is not taking off their lab coats and going to the science-bar to celebrate yet. Under the current process, a cup sized bio-reactor takes about one week to produce a gram of the stuff. The next step for the Finnish team is to find ways to optimize the manufacturing process further until it is consistent or better than commercial agricultural outputs.  Juha-Pekka Pitkänen, the principal scientist at VTT, predicts “Maybe 10 years is a realistic timeframe for reaching commercial capacity, in terms of the necessary legislation and process technology.”


food-from-electricity-8

Source: http://www.newatlas.com – The Lab Setup At VTT


The principal scientist at VTT, predicts “Maybe 10 years is a realistic timeframe for reaching commercial capacity, in terms of the necessary legislation and process technology.” 

The sheer scale of the impact that this technology can have on our world is staggering. From reducing poverty induced hunger to reducing the carbon footprint of industries that manufacture food for farm livestock to reshaping the economies of barren geographic zones, the sociopolitical ramifications are massive. However, on a personal note, if this is indeed what the future of food looks like, I just hope we still have ketchup reserves.

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