Power to Food - Take excess carbon dioxide, add electricity, get fat?
It sounds like science fiction; it’s just science. Turning CO2 into edible fat using electricity is already feasible on a laboratory scale. The concept called Power to Food combines several existing chemical processes to make food for humans and feed for animals on a grander scale.
How does it work? First, electrical energy splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. Then, reacting to the hydrogen, CO2 is converted into chemical intermediates, which commercially available technologies can turn into substances similar or identical to the plant-based butters and oils we eat. The only difference is that the energy content comes from electricity instead of traditional plant photosynthesis. Therefore, an alternative description of the Power to Food process could be electrical photosynthesis.
Laboratory tests conducted by researchers at RISE - Research Institutes of Sweden demonstrated the feasibility of the concept for common fat types called triglycerides and free fatty acids such as palmitic acid and caprylic acid. Sweden´s Innovation Agency Vinnova funded the research project, and company Green-On is now commercializing the concept. The company aims to create a test cooking oil and a butter-like fat within 1-2 years, have a pilot plant up and running in 3-4 years, and go to market in 5-8 years.
The environmental advantage of electrical photosynthesis
Production of foodstuffs using this process can replace part of today’s primary food production with a lower environmental footprint. Oils and fats produced through electrical photosynthesis would indeed use a fraction of land compared to traditional agriculture - minimizing biodiversity loss and deforestation - and require zero nitrogen and phosphorus. They would also be more water-efficient and resilient to changes in weather and climate. Powered by solar or other renewable energy sources, their environmental impact would be minimal.
Power to Food can, for example, capture and transform the 560,000 tons of CO2 emitted annually by a typical Swedish paper mill into the equivalent of 110,000 tons of rapeseed oil: entire harvest in Sweden. The edible fats can be eaten as is, blended into conventional foods, or used to produce animal feed.
As long as CO2 is available, the Power to Food process can help produce food, particularly where water is scarce and sunlight abundant. With desertification accelerating worldwide, this process may be one of the few options to produce fat locally in many regions.