CO2 Can Be Our Food

published Feb 15, 2023
2 min read

About a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions come from food production. The food tech startup Arkeon has proposed turning the process around by using gas fermentation to convert CO2 into food. Arkeon’s secret ingredient is a tiny microbe found in an underwater volcano. If you want to see these microbes, you don’t have to start on the table or in the garden. However, you will need lots of luck and effort to find them. The search can turn into gambling, as you have to look for microbes with properties that we do not yet know about, for example, at the bottom of a volcano.

This little microbe can be of great benefit since food production accounts for about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, a beef burger emits 2 kg of CO2. Arkeon’s technology offers the ability to turn everything upside down and cook food out of emissions instead of producing them.

Microbes With Gas

Gas fermentation is a process similar to precision fermentation, a trend that investors have recently taken notice of. In 2021, they invested $133 million in technology, and $90 million in 2022, mostly in seed-stage startups.

Precision fermentation uses DNA splicing to insert animal genes into yeast microbes, and a process similar to beer brewing takes place, resulting in a milk-like liquid. Yeast microbes feed on carbohydrates and sugars.

Arkeon’s gas fermentation is not too different; it’s very similar. However, instead of using sugar-based nutrients that need to be grown on agricultural land, scientists use carbon dioxide and hydrogen as feedstock.

Climate Will Win

If the technology is scalable, gas fermentation could bring even more climate benefits than precision fermentation. Not only would it reduce the amount of land and emissions needed for production, but it would also allow emissions to be recycled.

Arkeon’s technology makes it possible to produce amino acids, the building blocks of protein, in powder form. Tegle, the startup co-founder, says the end product could be used in protein powders, alternative protein products, and cosmetics.

At present, Arkeon receives its carbon dioxide from breweries. However, the startup co-founder believes that in the future, it will be possible to arrange supplies from energy producers who will do it willingly to comply with emissions regulations.

It is not yet clear whether amino acids derived from gas fermentation must go through the European Union’s New Food Approval procedure, which regulates products such as cultured meat and precision fermentation.

Gas Fermentation in Europe

Arkeon is not the only startup to do gas fermentation. Finland’s Solar Foods project has already received a $76 million investment, and its first products have been approved for consumption in Singapore. Solar Foods’ technology is somewhat different from Arkeon’s. It gets proteins from the microbes themselves, not the amino acids they produce.

A number of projects are working on converting CO2 into animal feed, such as Deep Branch, which is based in Nottingham (UK), and Calysta (USA). Startup Calysta has received $30 million from BP, demonstrating the interest of energy companies in the value chain of recycled CO2.

There are also startups such as Berlin’s Second Circle. It uses gas fermentation and microbes from horse manure to convert CO2 into chemicals for the chemical industry.

Problems With Hydrogen

Arkeon aims to bring its cosmetic amino acids to market in 2024, followed by food products two years later. However, before that happens, Arkeon needs to scale production enough to achieve price parity with incumbent amino acid producers. One of the obstacles was the shortage of bioreactors. There is a sharp increase in demand for them, combined with a shortage of steel, which led to an accumulation of orders.

The cost of hydrogen required to feed the microbes is even more critical, especially considering the shortage of green hydrogen. As food prices continue to rise in Europe, there is concern about the future of innovative food companies.

For many, the 83% drop in the value of shares in Beyond Meat, the American alternative meat giant, in 2022 was a symbolic warning. Ultimately, if your technology is more like a painkiller than a vitamin, you won’t have a problem.