Microbial protein, a scientist’s opinion
Interview with Vesa Ruuskanen, post-doctoral researcher at LUT REFLEX research platform.
The idea of producing “food from air” was developed by NASA and the Soviets. What was exactly the discovery of Finnish scientists that made this Neo Carbon Food project possible?
In our previous Neo Carbon Food energy project we studied how we could get rid of the greenhouse gas emissions in the energy sector. And we found that it is doable by renewable energy, synthetic fuels and so on. At the same time, we noticed that even though we could electrify and decarbonise the whole energy sector it might not be enough because agriculture is a very big source of greenhouse gases. And it cannot be electrified by batteries or solutions like that. Then, biochemists of the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT) came up with the idea: we can use hydrogen as the energy source and CO2 as a carbon source with micro-organisms. The difference is that back in the sixties this kind of technology was not that topical, because fertilisers just arrived in the market and renewable electricity was not available. The solar cells and wind energy was not as developed as they are at the moment. We combined this sort of technology with the direct capture of CO2. According to our knowledge that was not combined together before.
Did carbon capture play a big part in the discovery?
In our solution, carbon capture closes the carbon cycle. Carbon capture was a known technology applied for removing CO2 from breathing air in military and space applications. However, we apply the same principles to capture CO2 from the ambient air, which is available all over the planet.
What are the next steps in your scientific research?
We have proven that the system is working. Next, we want to make the process more integrated and more energy efficient. It is the next big thing of the study. At the moment, we are concentrating on protein production but the end product could be something else. You just need to change the microbes. If you find the right microbes or bacteria you can produce whatever you desire. If you cannot find that kind of bacteria or micro-organism, gene technology offers a way to modify the micro-organisms that produces the desired result. But at the moment we are not at this phase yet.
How much powder can be produced right now and what are the predictions in the near future? Is there any quantitative limitation?
The main advantage of the system is that it is completely scalable. We are separating the scaling up and the numbering up. To some extent we scale up and then we can just repeat and make as many units as possible. It is very similar to solar cell production. In our pilot system, the targeted aim is 4 grams per hour. There are no limits foreseen at the moment. The main requirement is energy. Solar and wind production has huge capacity. The source of carbon is available, there is air everywhere, you just need sunlight and this is also available in most places on the planet.
Do you have enough funding for your research? Where does it come from?
The project is funded by the Academy of Finland “MOPED — Microbial Oil and Proteins from Air by Electricity-Driven Microbes” project funding under No. 295866 and Technology Industries of Finland Centennial Foundation together with Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation. The Academy of Finland has provided funds for 4 years and now we have one year left. We are waiting for some continuation.