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Microbial Protein Production More Efficient Than Crops

The cultivation of microbial biomass, which is rich in proteins as well as other nutrients, can play a vital role in achieving food security while mitigating the negative environmental footprint of agriculture.


(Schematic representation of energy transfer during production of single-cell proteins from solar energy)

Population growth and changes in dietary patterns place an ever-growing pressure on the environment. Feeding the world within sustainable boundaries therefore requires revolutionizing the way we harness natural resources. Microbial biomass can be cultivated to yield protein-rich feed and food supplements, collectively termed single-cell protein (SCP).

Yet, we still lack a quantitative comparison between traditional agriculture and photovoltaic-driven SCP systems in terms of land use and energetic efficiency. Here, we analyze the energetic efficiency of harnessing solar energy to produce SCP from air and water. Our model includes photovoltaic electricity generation, direct air capture of carbon dioxide, electrosynthesis of an electron donor and/or carbon source for microbial growth (hydrogen, formate, or methanol), microbial cultivation, and the processing of biomass and proteins.

We show that, per unit of land, SCP production can reach an over 10-fold higher protein yield and at least twice the caloric yield compared with any staple crop. Altogether, this quantitative analysis offers an assessment of the future potential of photovoltaic-driven microbial foods to supplement conventional agricultural production and support resource-efficient protein supply on a global scale.

Science fiction author James Blish described a similar basis for food, crop algae, in his excellent 1950's novel Cities in Flight:

"It's the food situation I'm worried about... There's been another mutation in the Chlorella tanks; must have started when we passed through that radiation field near Sigma Draconis. We're getting a yield of about twenty-two hundred kilograms per acre in terms of fats."

"That's not bad."

"Not bad, but it's dropping steadily, and the rate of decrease is accelerating. If it's not arrested, we won't have any algae crops at all in a year or so.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 8/13/2022)

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