A New Food Made From Carbon Dioxide Could Be a Game Changer for Our Planet — And Beyond

When the dust settles, a powder than can be produced anywhere — and made into anything — could be a game-changer. bonder.olka/Shutterstock

Someday, meals may not so much be cooked, as generated.

As in, take a little water, add a dash of carbon dioxide, and give it an electrical jolt.

Dinner is ... materialized. But you're probably going to want fries with that.

After all, Solein — a meal that's essentially zapped into existence from "thin air," as the Finnish company likes to say— is essentially protein-rich dust, with all the flavorless possibilities that would suggest.

But if Solar Foods, the Finnish company behind this single-cell protein, can back its claim of being able to produce food that's "free from agricultural limitations," we may get a hint at what the end of hunger looks like.

That's important stuff — especially in a world where one in nine people go hungry, according to a 2018 United Nations report.

It's a problem Solein says it can help solve, but it won't happen quickly. Solar Foods says it will most likely launch as a supplement for protein shakes and smoothies, as early as 2021.

From there, the sky is literally the limit, because Solein's chief ingredient is carbon dioxide.

The company churns out the stuff by extracting CO2 from the air. Then it blends it with water, vitamins and nutrients. The Guardian describes it as "a process similar to brewing beer. Living microbes are put in liquid and fed with carbon dioxide and hydrogen bubbles, which have been released from water through the application of electricity. The microbes create protein, which is then dried to make the powder."

The entire process, including the lengthy fermentation, relies fully on renewable solar energy. And there's no need to worry about increasingly precious arable land.

"It can be produced anywhere around the world, even in areas where conventional protein production has never been possible," the company noted in a statement to Dezeen magazine.

Aerial view of deforestation
When humans clear forests, there's a negative ripple effect. And livestock farming just eats up room on our planet — room we are slowly realizing we simply don't have. (Photo: Fedorov Oleksiy/Shutterstock)

If it sounds like the only thing Solar Foods is baking is a great big pie-in-the-sky dream, consider that it's already well under development. The seeds for Solein were originally planted at NASA, as a not-particularly-yummy form of sustenance for space travelers and future colonists.

After all, Mars is still a long way from being able to grow potatoes. The success of long-term missions to the Red Planet could hinge on a scalable food product that's generated rather than grown.

But the potential is even more tantalizing here on Earth, where more and more people want to know what's for dinner — and scientists are increasingly mum.

Do the math for meat production — and the 7 billion people expecting to eat it — and the numbers don't add up.

Again, Solein could help fill that gap. The surging popularity of beef-free burgers like Beyond Meat could dramatically ease our reliance on animal agriculture, which is resource-intensive, but it still requires space for those beets, peas and pomegranates to grow.

Not so much for Solein, which is not only carbon-neutral, but neutral enough in every other way to form the chief ingredient for those meatless burgers we can't seem to get enough of.

Now, we're cooking.