Q&A

BACKGROUND: WHAT WAS THE INSPIRATION BEHIND SOLAR FOODS?

Solar Foods is a food tech start-up that was founded to commercialise the research that was carried out in VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and LUT University (Lappeenranta University of Technology). The founding team wanted to develop a solution for converting CO2 captured from the air into edible calories (food) in order to reverse the effect of all of the released CO2 from burning fossil fuels. To achieve such a complex task, a living single-cell microorganism was identified as the best converter for the job. After the proof of concept at VTT, Solar Foods was founded in November 2017 and started operations in March 2018.

WHAT IS SOLEIN®?

Solar Foods’ Solein® is a unique single-cell protein created by a fermentation process that utilises air and electricity as its primary resources. Solein aims to be the first food on the market that is produced without agriculture and without fossil fuels. Based on a lifecycle analysis study, as a protein source, Solein’s comparative greenhouse gas emissions are approximately 1% that of meat protein and about 20% of plant protein production. Compared to them, it also takes just a fraction of the amount of water to produce Solein.

CAN I BUY SOLEIN OR GET SAMPLES?

As with all new foods, we are in the process of Novel Food approval in accordance with EU food safety regulations. Foods or food ingredients that have not been consumed (to a significant degree) before 1997 are considered novel foods in the EU. This also means we can’t provide samples yet.

CAN YOU REALLY PRODUCE FOOD ONLY FROM AIR?

All the main ingredients: carbon (CO2), hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen can be captured from the air. The microorganism that is the actual protein was found from nature and feeds on those airborne ingredients. A few percent of the end-product consist of inorganic nutrients, such as phosphorus and calcium, which cannot be taken from the air.

DOES SOLEIN HAVE A DISTINCTIVE AND ACCEPTABLE TASTE?

Solein has hardly any taste. Our professional product development characterises its taste as “neutral”, which means it does not bring any distinctive taste to the final product. This is good news as many of the alternative proteins in the market have an unpleasant taste, which needs to be masked in the final food products to cover the taste.

DOES SOLEIN PRODUCTION REMOVE CARBON DIOXIDE FROM THE ATMOSPHERE?

It does not permanently remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but it sequesters it. Therefore, it can be thought of as carbon neutral. CO2 is removed from the atmosphere with direct air capture (DAC) technology, but once the food is consumed, the CO2 returns to the atmosphere through respiration. Conventional plant or animal protein that is replaced by Solein could also free up the land that was used to grow the plants and animals. If the land is used for growing trees, then Solein production would be a net sink of carbon dioxide i.e. carbon-negative.

DOES SOLEIN RESOLVE GLOBAL ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS AND HUNGER?

Based on scientific evidence Solein is the most environmentally friendly protein. If it would replace meat in the human diet, the crises of the planetary ecosystem and the climate would be gone. Solein production does not require arable land and it is very efficient in water use, therefore it can provide nutrition for water-scarce areas and areas bereft of agricultural land and suitable farming conditions. It could be farmed on Antarctica or in the Sahara paving the way to resolving global environmental problems and hunger. We are not proposing that people would live on Solein alone though.

DOES THE PRODUCTION OF SOLEIN CONSUME A LOT OF ENERGY?

Solein’s biggest footprint comes from the use of electricity, which is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen to feed the microorganisms. The electricity used for the processing Solein is renewable solar and wind power. With the best available technology, the efficiency from electricity to calories is about 20%. Solein is 100 times more efficient in converting energy to calories than animals. And compared to plants, by hectare, the yield in Solein is 10 times more than photosynthetic plants – even if the electricity for Solein production would be from solar panels (which requires a decent amount of square mileage). Theoretically speaking, looking at our home country of Finland, if all the calories that Finns consume would be from Solein, the whole food production of a nation would require 10% of the primary energy use of Finland and one-third of the electricity consumed today.

HOW DOES THE PRODUCTION WORK?

The original single-cell microorganisms for Solein were collected from Finnish nature. The microbes were cultured and grown with air and electricity as the primary resources in a fermentor akin to the ones used in breweries and wineries. The Solein microbes are put in a liquid – called a growth medium – within the fermentor. The liquid is continuously supplied with small bubbles of hydrogen and carbon dioxide, as well as some nutrients including nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus and potassium, which are the same nutrients that plants normally absorb through their roots from the soil. The microbes eat these ingredients to grow and multiply. As the liquid grows thicker, some of the slurry is continuously removed and dried. The resulting dried powder is Solein®, which is made up of whole cells that are up to 70% protein. The macronutrient composition of the cells is very similar to that of dried soy or algae.

HOW MUCH CO2 DO YOU BIND IN THIS PROCESS?

1 kg of Solein requires 1.85 kg of CO2.

HOW WILL SOLEIN BE USED: DO YOU EXPECT PEOPLE TO EAT ONLY POWDER OR PILLS IN THE FUTURE?

The adaptability of Solein is virtually limitless. Solein can be used as a protein ingredient in existing foods such as bread, pasta and plant-based dairy, drinks, and in between meals. Secondly, Solein can be used as a protein ingredient in alternative meat products. Thirdly, if laboratory-grown meat production will scale up in the future, Solein could provide the amino acid platform that real meat cells could use for growing. Therefore, Solar Foods’ technology should be seen as a platform technology for strategically disconnecting food production from agriculture, rather than just in the production of a protein ingredient.

IS IT ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY?

Based on a lifecycle analysis study, Solein is about 10 times more climate-friendly than most plant-based proteins and about 100 times more climate-friendly than meat.

IS IT OK FOR ANYONE TO EAT?

Dietarily, Solein is kind to all. It’s 100% vegan, gluten-free, GMO-free, dairy-free, soy-free and it does not contradict any religious dietary restrictions.

IS IT VEGAN?

Yes.

IS SOLEIN HEALTHY?

We do not make any health claims in comparison to other plant or meat-based protein sources for the time being. Based on the analysis done so far, Solein is an extremely diverse ingredient. It contains all the nine essential amino acids, carbohydrates, fats and minerals as any other food. The nutritional profile consists of 65-70 % protein, 10-15 % carbohydrates, 5-8 % fat and 3-5 % minerals.

IS SOLEIN SAFE?

Solein is 100% safe. All novel foods need to go through a rigorous testing protocol before allowed for sale. This novel food approval for Solein is underway by European authorities: once the process is ready and Solein receives official approval, it will be ready for use in everyday food products.

IS THERE MORE SPECIFIC INFORMATION AVAILABLE REGARDING SOLEIN AND MAKING PRODUCTS FROM IT?

You can request more information by contacting us at info@solarfoods.com. You can stay up to date by joining our mailing list, where we cover the latest progress of Solein and look at the landscape and future of global protein production. Hopefully, soon Solein pancakes will be available outside our lab too!

SOLAR FOODS’ SOLUTION FOR PROTEIN PRODUCTION SOUNDS ARTIFICIAL. IS IT?

The diversity of nature is more varied than meets the eye. Solein has been around in nature even longer than our other foods have. Solein is protein in its most natural form. It is not a plant nor an animal. Instead, it originates from a non-modified, single-cell organism. It is not artificial, but a completely natural protein, even though it is not grown traditionally from the earth. We just haven’t seen it on our plates before. Solein is a novel food, meaning it is food never made available for commercial use before. Growing and harvesting single cells from nature for food was not possible for hunter-gatherers 100,000 years ago, or the human race in general up until today. We have now reaped the first harvest of this new food and it’s called Solein.

SOUNDS INTERESTING – I’D LIKE TO TAKE PART IN THE COMPANY’S JOURNEY. CAN I INVEST IN SOLAR FOODS?

We are currently privately held by a small number of investors. Please contact investors@solarfoods.com for further information. We have not announced any plans to become publicly traded, but you can stay up to date by joining our mailing list.

WHAT ABOUT THE SOURCE OF NITROGEN IN SOLEIN?

Proteins inherently require nitrogen as their core building block. The source of nitrogen for Solein is ammonia (NH3) as an ammonium (NH4+) water solution in the growth medium. Solein factories have been planned to have their own green ammonia production through the Haber-Bosch synthesis. In the synthesis, nitrogen is captured from the air, with about 7% of the hydrogen produced for Solein fermentation first turned (together with nitrogen) to ammonia, and then added into the growth medium. In total, this process consumes about 5% of the total electricity needed for Solein production. If ammonia production is not done at location, green ammonia is sourced from the market. For the time being, the figures reported for Solein’s environmental impact DO NOT include the use of green ammonia but assume that ammonia is produced with natural gas. About 20% of the remaining climate impact reported for Solein production is due to the use of ammonia. When excluding changes in land use, about 67% of the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture in the European Union are due to the formation of N2O in soils fertilised with mineral nitrogen or manure fertilisers. In Solein production, there is no need for fertilisers and thus no environmental impact from them. Source: EU Agricultural outlook for the agricultural markets and income 2017-2030

WHAT IS THE CHEMICAL COMPOSITION OF SOLEIN?

Solein cells, like all other living material on the planet earth, are comprised of carbon (46% of weight in Solein), hydrogen (6.5%), oxygen (25%) and nitrogen (12%). Also, Solein production requires some minerals to provide elements, such as sulfur, calcium, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, zinc, potassium, and sodium – in total, approximately 20 elements that are essential to life. These are elements that plant roots would ingest from the soil. In a full air-capture concept for Solein production, C, H, O, and N are all sourced from the air, while nutrient minerals still need to be sourced from added nutrients.

WHAT IS THE MARS PROJECT ABOUT?

Solar Foods co-operates with ESABIC (European Space Agency Business Incubator) in order to study pre-feasibility for producing Solein during a Mars mission. Initial results show it can be done. Solar Foods hopes to continue the Mars mission in the 2020s and beyond.

WHAT IS THE PLAN AFTER FACTORY 01 BEGINS OPERATIONS? WHAT’S NEXT?

The new Solar Foods production facility, called Factory 01, is set to begin construction in Q4 2021 in Vantaa, Finland. The company estimates commercial Solein® production will begin in the first half of 2023 and will serve as Solar Foods’ platform for scaling up production. Solar Foods is currently in the process of getting a permit to launch a novel food in the EU. Our target is to go to market in 2023 and we estimate an investment decision for a full-scale factory could be made in 2024-2025. Solar Foods’ target for the coming years is to scale up production, bring Solein into a growing number of food products and solidify the company’s position as a leading player in the market of sustainably produced protein. The exact timeline depends on several questions, but the company is looking to expand to new countries and build more production facilities by 2030.

WHAT IS THE STATUS OF THE DEVELOPMENT NOW?

Solar Foods is operating a pilot plant in Espoo, Finland where the technology has been scaled up a thousandfold since 2018. The pilot plant is built to be a complete replica of the future full-scale factory. We are growing quickly though. Another 1000X scaleup is underway to commercialise Solein with our new factory in Vantaa where construction will start by the end of 2021. Our next steps are continuing our food product development, beginning Solein production in Vantaa in 2023, as well as getting the permit to launch a novel food in the EU.

WHAT REGIONS DO YOU SEE AS POTENTIAL LOCATIONS FOR YOUR NEXT FACTORIES?

Solein production does not require arable land, is not dependent on daylight, and is very efficient in water use. Therefore, so long as there is a renewable source of energy available, Solein can provide nutrition for water-scarce areas and areas bereft of agricultural land or suitable farming conditions. It could be farmed in Antarctica or in the Sahara, paving the way for resolving global environmental problems and hunger.

WHEN CAN WE EXPECT TO SEE SOLEIN ON THE MARKET?

We aim to be on the market in 2023.

WHERE DOES THE YELLOW COLOUR COME FROM?

The yellow colour comes from beta-carotene, which is a naturally occurring pigment in Solein. Carotenoids are antioxidants and great nutrients, converting into vitamin A in the liver. An example of a familiar source of carotenoids is carrots. The yellow colour does not affect the taste though.