A team of researchers in Finland has successfully created food using electricity.
Well, calling it food is a bit of a stretch at this point—but it’s a start. By mixing three ingredients into a coffee-cup-sized bioreactor and supplying an electric shock, they zapped a powder into being that’s around 50% protein and 25% carbohydrates, with the rest being fat and nucleic acid.
This early-stage research could pave a path toward a solution to cheaply feed hungry populations without massive land use. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 795 million people in the world—that’s one in nine—suffer from chronic undernourishment. And it’s not just human mouths it can help feed: “Along with food, the researchers are developing the protein to be used as animal feed,” says a press release on the study. In the US alone, more than 800 million people could be fed with the grain used by the livestock industry every year, according to research at Cornell University; animal agriculture is also the largest consumer of water resources in the US.
All this to say: New food-making technology could make huge inroads for feeding people in need instead.
The work was completed as part of a joint study by Lappeenranta University of Technology and VTT Technical Research Centre, funded by the Academy of Finland. A team of researchers mixed water, carbon dioxide, and microbes into small bioreactor. Then, by exposing those ingredients to electrolysis, they were able to create a small amount of solid material with a nutrition profile that matched basic food.
But it’s not exactly practical yet: It currently takes about two weeks to create one gram of crude protein powder. The scientists predict it will take about a decade before a big-enough system can be developed for wider use. According to a statement by the university, the researchers have a goal of creating a process that’s 10 times as energy efficient as current food-growth methods and can be powered by renewable energy outlets, such as windmills.
Using electrolysis to develop a more environmentally sustainable food system is just one route researchers are taking to solve worldwide famine and agricultural issues. Companies are also experimenting with growing meats and milk in giant vats, which cuts out the need for the large-scale agricultural operations that contribute to greenhouse-gas emissions.
Read this next: This vegan milk is a guilt-free replica of cow’s milk