Food out of thin air

  • Aug. 2, 2017 3:02 p.m.

Television, radio, the web all continually have stories relating to the GHG issues predominately formed by the large amount of carbon dioxide gases that modern civilization emits during the course of an average day. Stories of politicians fighting over whether CO2 is actually the issue, should they complying with the Paris accord, or the latest information on forest fires, hurricanes, typhoons or tornados, the acidification and rise in level of our oceans all inundate us daily.

Being besieged with the doom and gloom theories is enough to make a thinking person pine for an existence far removed from the reach of any media campaign. Perhaps the simple solution is to shut off all radios and televisions in our homes so we can be blissfully ignorant of all the appalling perceived conditions that threaten our existence.

Perhaps however, inside the dark foreboding prognostications is an opportunity that would make King Midas envious? Technological advances are being made in producing blue fuel, a synthesised liquid fuel that replaces natural hydrocarbon in all its form, and has the benefit of not adding to the world GHG emissions, by recycling what carbon is in the air.

Companies around the world such as Germany’s car company, Audi, the Swiss company Climeworks, the Australians at the University of Adelaide with their C02 to methane catalyst, Carbon Engineering in Squamish, and the Finns at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland with their Soletair demo project, are all working on producing fuels from atmospheric carbon. Known as air to fuel, or A2F, they address the need for high density fuels required by long haul, air

travel, and other critical functions which still require combustion of a high energy dense fuel.

Not letting these advancements in carbon capture constrain their creativity to motive fuels only, the Finns at the Lappeenranta University of Technology and the VTT Technical Research Center have found another purpose even more essential to life on Earth. Specifically, they have developed a way for feeding the human population using that very same carbon source. Using electricity and CO2 scrubbed from ambient air they have been able to produce protein with a process 10 times more efficient than photosynthesis.

As part of the Neo-Carbon Energy project funded by the Academy of Finland, their goal is to find alternate uses for ambient carbon and feeding the world fits the mandate in numerous ways. Remote areas, where temperatures or water shortages create huge problems for conventional food production, making supplemental protein for human and or animal consumption, with only sunshine and air makes good sense. Economically it’s feasible; the health supplement market currently provides supplemental protein powders.

Although viable in the lab, at 50 percent protein and 25 percent carbohydrates the commercialization of this process depends on improving the technology and economizing efficiencies of scale, the current focus of these researcher’s Atmospheric carbon may turn into a global gold mine for innovative businesses that are interested in mitigating current environmental issues. We all profit from feeding the world.

Lorne Oja can be reached at lorne@solartechnical.ca.

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