Solar-powered bioreactors could make food more affordable and sustainable

Solar-powered bioreactors could make food more affordable and sustainable
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Do you have friends who are willing to turn a blind eye to the destruction of forests in order to feed our ever-increasing population? Isn’t it frustrating to have no real answer for how to feed billions of people without harming the environment? That is, until now. Researchers have already begun to work on producing food from the air, which will free up land resources for increased forestation. Furthermore, it will be able to feed a greater number of people than traditional crops.

Feeding our expanding population is a huge challenge. Over the last few decades, an increasing amount of forest land has been converted to cultivate crops for human consumption. This is hastening climate change and threatening the extinction of many species.

Many innovations are being developed in order to change the way we farm our food. One such method is the use of microalgae, protists, yeast, and bacteria as animal feed replacements. Solar Foods, based in Finland, creates Solein, a protein it refers to as “made out of thin air.”

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The protein is created by first absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and then converting it into formate, which bacteria can use to grow. The organism is harvested at a certain point and then processed into a protein powder that can be consumed, hence the name ‘Single Cell Protein (SCP).’ Because the bacteria grows in bioreactors, the process can be carried out even in the most desolate environments.

But how can one tell if these solutions are truly feasible or merely ideas that cannot be scaled? The Solar Foods demonstration plant will not be operational until 2023.

Dorian Leger, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology, set out to answer this question. He and his colleagues compared the efficiency of single-cell protein culture to that of traditional agriculture. The findings of their study were published in the journal PNAS.

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According to the study, the SCP process could produce 15 tonnes of protein per 2.5 acres (1 hectare) per year, enough to meet the dietary needs of 520 people. A soya plantation in the same area, on the other hand, would yield only 1.1 tonnes of protein, enough to feed 40 people. “If you have 10 square kilometers of soya bean fields in the Amazon, hypothetically you could make that 0.38 square mile (1 square km) of solar panels and reforest the other nine,” Leger told New Scientist.

Adaptable to a wide range of environments

Despite the fact that the process was solar-powered, the low availability of sunlight in certain countries had little effect on the output.

According to a cost comparison, the SCP is currently comparable for human proteins but expensive for animal feeds. As technology advances, the costs will fall even further, making them affordable while remaining sustainable.

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The authors of the study argue that public acceptance would be minimal because we already consume a lot of fermented foods such as bread, dairy, and soy sauce. SCP, like other foods, would have to demonstrate health benefits as well as meet safety standards and regulatory hurdles.

Leger believes that by developing this technology, we are paving the way for a new future in which our technology will outperform millions of years of crop evolution.

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