Author Topic: Producing food from CO2 without photosynthesis  (Read 189 times)

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Offline SCarpelan

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Producing food from CO2 without photosynthesis
« on: July 28, 2017, 02:00:52 am »
One of the cooler things I've encountered recently. A project by Lappeenranta University of Technology and the Technical Research Centre of Finland has come up with a biological generator where microbes use electricity and carbon dioxide to produce a nutritious mixture that can be used either as a cooking ingredient or animal fodder.

The system is almost 10 times as energy efficient as photosynthesis; the energy for the process can be produced with solar panels and the carbon is taken directly from the surrounding atmosphere. A closed process like this also means the nutrients the microbes use don't leak into the environment like when fertilizing fields.

Quote
"In practice, all the raw materials are available from the air. In the future, the technology can be transported to, for instance, deserts and other areas facing famine. One possible alternative is a home reactor, a type of domestic appliance that the consumer can use to produce the needed protein," explains Juha-Pekka Pitkänen, Principal Scientist at VTT.

Along with food, the researchers are developing the protein to be used as animal feed. The protein created with electricity can be used as a fodder replacement, thus releasing land areas for other purposes, such as forestry. It allows food to be produced where it is needed.

At the moment they have a generator the size of a coffee cup that takes two weeks to produce a gram of protein but they are planning a proper pilot project that would allow them to produce enough of the end product to test its use in practice. The schedule for a commercial product depends on how the economy develops in the near future but in another story I've seen a speculative estimation of 10 years.

If this can be commercialized the potential is intriguing. It offers yet another tool for fighting climate change: if you can produce cheap fodder for domestic animals there is much less pressure to cut down forests for new fields. Also, looking further into the future, space flights would probably have a use for a process like this.

Edited because of a couple of stupid grammatical mistakes that were leftovers from changing sentence structures.
« Last Edit: July 30, 2017, 02:43:01 am by SCarpelan »

Offline RavynousHunter

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Re: Producing food from CO2 without photosynthesis
« Reply #1 on: July 28, 2017, 08:09:43 am »
Combine that with something that could scrub the CO2 from the upper layers of the atmosphere, and you got an even better tool.
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Offline Art Vandelay

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Re: Producing food from CO2 without photosynthesis
« Reply #2 on: July 31, 2017, 10:09:55 pm »
Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if the energy cost to produce this stuff is at least an order of magnitude higher than simply growing it the normal way. That's usually a running theme with these "[thing] from air" processes that crop up every so often.

Offline SCarpelan

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Re: Producing food from CO2 without photosynthesis
« Reply #3 on: July 31, 2017, 10:49:40 pm »
Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if the energy cost to produce this stuff is at least an order of magnitude higher than simply growing it the normal way. That's usually a running theme with these "[thing] from air" processes that crop up every so often.
The official announcement by the university specifically mentions the energy cost to be an advantage of this process so this is not an interpretation by a click-baiting pop science publication. Instead of coming up with an exotic new chemical process they are taking advantage of microbes that are known to be efficient with CO2 synthesis. The pilot project might reveal other practical problems with a large scale application but it doesn't seem energy efficiency is something to be worried about at least when it comes to the process itself.

Offline Art Vandelay

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Re: Producing food from CO2 without photosynthesis
« Reply #4 on: August 01, 2017, 01:19:20 am »
Well, I for one aren't inclined to just take their word for it. First off, polymerising atmospheric compounds is extremely energy intensive, no matter how you slice it. It's simple and utterly unavoidable thermodynamics. It's not a question of the process, it's the fact that moving the necessary electrons into the higher energy states needed to form the new bonds requires a set minimum input of energy. It's a fundamental law of physics, there's no way around it.

Not only that, but the fact that they're using microbes can only means it's going to be far more energy intensive in practice than is thermodynamically required. Microbes, like all other living things, need energy just to stay alive. Then of course, the energy that does go towards producing proteins and carbs isn't going to be anywhere near 100% efficient. So yeah, I would be extremely surprised if the power to weight ratio of this stuff isn't through the fucking roof. Add to that the fact that the electricity that goes into powering this machine comes from the grid, which in Finland is only around 25% renewable, and it'll likely be a couple of orders of magnitude more expensive and environmentally unfriendly than the equivalent energy cost of producing the fertalisers, pesticides and fuel needed to grow the same mass of food.

I know this is just speculation on my part, and I for one would love to see someone check the actual numbers involved, but again, this is largely why these "things from air" processes fail miserably. I'll believe that this will be the one to buck the trend when I see some actual proof.