Solving the food crisis from Mars missions to arid deserts

Solar Foods' Senior Vice President Arttu Luukanen wearing a suit

Dr Arttu Luukanen

Senior Vice President, Space & Defense

Solar Foods

Why would a company devoted to solving the food crisis on Earth be interested in taking humanity to Mars? Because solutions to both those challenges share the same roots.

I joined Solar Foods with a different background than many of our experts. While many others in our team have dedicated their careers to understanding the secrets of biochemistry and bioprocesses, I am first and foremost a physicist.

At the age of ten I was given a telescope by my father. I was instantly hooked by stargazing, which became a lifelong hobby of mine. I even considered astronomy as a career, but an academic family friend suggested studying physics would offer a better basis for doing more things later in life.

I began my studies in the University of Helsinki in the mid-90s, worked on my PhD in the University of Jyväskylä and did post-doc research in Boulder, Colorado. I’ve worked as a research professor at VTT, Director at Millilab, and ran the startup company Asqella. Along the way, I’ve often had the privilege of working on space-related projects. In one of my first internships at Metorex International I helped produce instruments for space missions: in fact, one of the instruments I had a hand in developing is out there sitting on the surface of an asteroid.

In 2008, I was in the top 2% in the pool of astronaut candidates. Sadly it wasn’t in the stars that I would travel to space, but that didn’t diminish my interest in conquering the last unknown frontier in the least.

Now you know a little bit about me. But what brought me to Solar Foods?

Cutting costs first, then bringing Mars within our reach

My sphere at Solar Foods involves Space and Resilience. These sound like very different domains but at their core lies the same question: how do we feed people effectively and securely in situations where food is a scarce and finite resource?

Let’s start with the Space half. One of the key things about space travel is that it is expensive – and that goes for staying fed in space, too. Maintaining a manned space station involves rockets carrying food and water up to orbit, and bringing trash and waste back down to earth. These are perhaps the most expensive supply runs known to humankind. Improving the food systems astronauts work with is therefore a question of security and practicality, but also cost.

We are currently working on developing and building the first version of our bioreactor that would fit into a space vessel and produce Solein on mission. While our first commercial-scale facility Factory 01 will scale production up, the space vessel bioreactor is a prime example of how we can also scale down and recreate the bioprocess in much less space. When it comes to LEO (Low Earth Orbit) missions, a solution like this saves money: less rockets are fired up for supply runs leaving more resources and budget for other things.

With missions that go beyond LEO and the Moon, a small-scale Solein production unit moves from a cost-saving procedure to the realm of possibilism. A flight to Mars would take at least seven months, plus another seven months for the return trip (and that’s in optimal conditions). Any mission would need a way to produce food during the flight: taking more than a year’s worth of food for a crew of six quickly runs into the limitations of storage space. Instead of filling the cargo bay with foodstuffs and water, it makes sense to launch things that can only be produced on Earth – anything else is a waste of precious cargo capacity. A Solein production unit could solve these challenges.

We are a business, so of course no matter how excited we are about space travel, the work also needs to make business sense in the foreseeable future. There’s a limited number of space missions and outposts in the sky, but private companies like SpaceX are constantly growing the pool of potential customers who could buy or rent Solein manufacturing units. As a matter of fact, several companies will be launching commercial space habitats to LEO in the next few years.

If a Solein solution was boosting the food supply onboard the ISS or other future habitats, the annual savings could reach millions of dollars. Considering a planned lunar base sometime in the future, the costs saved annually might be in the tens of millions. A mission to Mars? The value of a reliable food solution for such a scenario is ten, maybe even a hundred times that of those in LEO or on Luna.

Additionally, space-related research also often yields indirect upsides. Learning how to recreate the bioprocess in a much more confined space might provide us new insights into the larger, industrial-scale production of Solein: how to maximise efficiency, save materials and so forth. The mere mention of a Mars mission often attracts potential employees from a select group of bleeding edge experts, inspired by the thought of conquering space. So there are plenty of reasons why our space work holds great business potential.

Resilience is about decentralising food production – and fortifying supply

While the space part of my work is definitely intriguing, the same innovations are also deeply rooted to questions on Earth. This is where the Resilience part of my job comes into play.

Our current centralised agricultural system is vulnerable to disruptions. The war in Ukraine is the most recent example of a systemic shock, but drought and other climate conditions are year by year creating increasingly serious challenges, even outside active war zones. These issues gradually creep into the system and the more prominent they are allowed to get, the harder they become to solve.

For decades, problems like these have been alleviated through food aid – but this comes with its own challenges. In order to guarantee sufficient shelf life in local conditions, it’s difficult to make emergency rations as nutritious or varied as they ideally should be. The most basic ingredients can help keep malnourished children alive, but they’re still a far cry from a balanced diet.

Aside from actual food crises, the world is full of communities living under challenging climate conditions: remote villages above the Arctic Circle, settlements in arid desert regions, and so forth. Even in best case scenarios, they are vulnerable to sudden disruptions (e.g. natural disasters) that can destroy food storages or cut off supply routes.

To solve these questions, we need to move away from centralised agriculture and towards decentralised solutions. Now, we should remember that even remote communities typically don’t need to achieve 100% food independence from the rest of the world – therefore, it’s also not our goal. Resilience is more about adding alternatives and diversifying food supply through partial decentralisation. There’s a wide spectrum between a full-fledged Solein factory (highly centralised) and a fridge-sized unit that fits into a spacecraft (extremely decentralised).

For example, a small remote village could have a bioreactor the size of a freight container. This would not eliminate the need for outside food supply, but it would support and fortify the community’s nutrition needs and create an emergency solution to help secure food in an emergency.

The future is closer than we think

We are living an era of a new space race. Both the United States and China are looking to the stars, but private companies have also entered the field. It looks entirely possible that the construction of a permanent lunar base could start in the 2030s – there are some technical questions, but mostly the matter is about political will. After the Cold War there was less appetite for continued space travel beyond low-earth orbit, but the interest has risen anew and the competition is likely speed up development.

Our Earth is a finite rock travelling across the cosmos, a space of limited resources. If humanity is to persevere and become more than we are today, we need both to learn to live in harmony with nature here on Earth, and to grow our understanding and reach beyond our planet.

Ultimately that’s what my work at Solar Foods is about. Supporting the long-term goal of a decentralised system of food production in the most demanding conditions down on Terra Firma, and giving astronauts a tool that can help carry them further than humanity has ever travelled. It’s the work of today – and of tomorrow.