How microbial proteins shape food production on Earth and in space

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Finnish food tech company Solar Foods uses only hydrogen, CO2 and electricity to produce microbial proteins. Will it help astronauts reach Mars?

Sending humans to Mars is a daunting challenge, with countless variables to consider to ensure the health and safety of the crew.

But one of the most important factors for a successful deep space mission is often taken for granted. it’s food.

“If you just look at the history of exploration and long voyages, it’s the food that determines the success of that endeavor,” said Ralph Fritsche, space crop production manager at NASA. “Food system quality is the first line of defense for crew health and performance.”

But simply supplementing astronauts with tasteless calories to sustain life is not enough. Maintaining morale on long journeys is fundamental, and good food helps keep astronauts happy and healthy.

“One of the things we’ve learned along the way is that if astronauts don’t like that food, they don’t eat it,” Fritsche said. euronews culture. “And if you don’t eat it, you’ll lose weight. So different flavors, different textures, it’s all about it.”

Meeting the challenges of food production in space

Solving the food problem is top priority as NASA aims to launch astronauts to Mars by the late 2030s or early 2040s, and that journey could take two to three years to complete. matter.

This is why NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) have launched the Deep Space Food Challenge (DSFC) to provide food for long-range manned missions that minimize resources, minimize waste and provide safe food. That’s one of the reasons we’re appealing our solution to the public. Nutritious and delicious food.

Finnish foodtech company Solar Foods is one of two European winners of DSFC Phase 2. The company’s solution is called Solein, which the company describes as a sustainable source of protein “from scratch.”

Solein is produced using only electricity, carbon dioxide and hydrogen. All of these are readily available on spacecraft (astronauts need to breathe, after all).

These inputs, along with some minerals, are put into a bioreactor and fed to microorganisms to grow, multiply, and then dry and powder them to produce a form of protein that can be used as an ingredient in a variety of recipes. .

The process can be compared to yeast fermentation (think sourdough starter). However, the process uses single-celled organisms found naturally on Earth instead of yeast. And instead of giving them sugar, they give them tiny air bubbles.

“On Earth, for example, we manufacture solane as a food ingredient to replace eggs and milk, because solane itself does not have a particularly strong taste and can be blended with many ingredients,” says senior vice president Artu Lukanen. said. Doctor of Space Defense at Solar Foods, who has led teams participating in DSFC.

“It’s going to be a similar approach in space,” he said. euronews culture. “We can actually use a variety of techniques to turn solein into a meat-like, meaty jerky product, add some flavor, and possibly produce it on board from plants grown or stored. You can add oil.”

Another advantage of producing solane in space is the fact that one of the by-products of its production is water.

“The bioreactor actually not only produces food, but water comes out of the pipes,” Rukanen says. “And we claim that in addition to producing food on board, we can save 1,200 kilos of water.”

There is no single solution to feeding astronauts on long space missions

The Deep Space Food Challenge is advertised as a contest, but finding one solution to all food-related problems in long-distance space travel is nearly impossible.

“It’s not going to be one solution,” Lukanen admitted. “It’s going to be a solution essay, because what you want to do in the end is develop dozens of recipes that are enough to give you variation in food in those two years. So, Staff don’t get mad, they can help them.” They can have everything they need to live and thrive. “

Lukanen said an easy way to think about how Solane would blend in with other foods in space is “they make the salad and we provide the dressing.” Protein is an important part of a balanced diet, but astronauts also need carbohydrates such as fruits and vegetables.

Fritsche, one of the DSFC’s Phase 2 judges, said what surprised him most about the challenge was seeing this kind of collaboration and interaction, where different competing teams leveraged each other’s knowledge to create a product. He said that he saw how he was improving.

“Even if another team didn’t win a round of this challenge, they had aspects, elements and processes that could be used by another team that won,” he said. “Going into this match, I think I expected it to be a one-on-one match. .”

In the short term, Fritsche said food that doesn’t need to be cooked or processed, such as perishables and mushrooms, is likely to be included on Mars missions. But even further down the road, creating a protein source on board is something NASA is also considering.

Lessons from space that apply to Earth

Fritsche was one of the judges who traveled to Helsinki to judge Solar Foods’ submissions and tasted a “space shake” made from solane powder and fruit. He said what impressed him about the company was its commitment to building a solid and scalable ground business.

“What I really appreciate about what they’re doing is the fact that they had what seemed to be a really good terrestrial business model case,” he said. “These are real challenges as we (NASA) work in this new area of ​​technology and try to see how some of these ideas can be incorporated as spaceflight food solutions. stands out as a positive aspect of

Lukanen said that despite considering space applications, Solar Foods is still focused on producing solane for consumption on Earth. But challenges like DSFC teach us valuable lessons.

“Space is the ultimate, ultimate test for the circular economy,” he says. “I think it might not be such a stupid idea to try to close these loops that we are currently running indefinitely, living according to the same philosophy on this planet. We will be able to recycle more of what we waste and produce.” – Valuable products, whether food or materials from these waste products. “

As the planet gets hotter and hotter, protein sources like solane, which use fewer resources and produce less emissions than animal protein, are becoming mainstream.

Last year, Solar Foods obtained regulatory approval to market Solein in Singapore. A local Italian restaurant has launched the world’s first Solein chocolate gelato, substituting eggs and milk for a completely vegan product.

Europeans will have to wait a little longer. Lukanen said the company hopes to obtain approval to market Solein in the EU by next year.

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