‘Air-derived protein’? Biotech startups aim to challenge traditional farming with precision fermentation

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Credit: Air Protein

Feeding the world with protein made from air or industrial exhaust with minimal use of water and land, and without pesticides, fertilizer, or a thought for weather, seems fanciful. A handful of start-ups, though, say this scenario will become commercial reality in just a few years.

Their plan is to mass-produce proteins by using bacteria to ferment various gases. Once dried, the bacterium cell bodies form a flour with a protein content of about 70%.

Even though some of the firms have already shown that they can make edible—and even tasty—protein at lab and pilot scale, they have yet to prove their approach can compete in the real world against soy and other high-protein crops such as pea. If gas-to-protein processes can overcome this cost hurdle, the market opportunity is huge.

Related article:  Viewpoint: Netflix's 'Okja' perpetuates stereotypes about food, farming and scientists

The Finnish start-up Solar Foods aims to be one of the first companies to make air-derived protein a commercial reality. “Our vision is to change the way food is produced ….” Pasi Vainikka, CEO and cofounder of Solar Foods, says in a recent press release from the company.

The firm is developing a process that combines green hydrogen, made from water electrolysis powered by renewable electricity, with nitrogen and CO2 from the air. This mixture is fed into a fermentation tank and used to feed the protein-producing bacteria.

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