Science - November 29, 2016

Producing food without sunlight

Albert Sikkema

David Strik, lecturer in Environmental Technology, has received a grant from Technology Foundation STW for a new method to produce food. He wants to grow food using electricity instead of sunlight.

<Solar-powered algae production, without sunlight; photo: David Strik.>

On 24 November, Strik received an ‘Open Mind’ grant of 50,000 euros from the research financer STW. With these grants, STW supports innovating ideas in science. Strik is the co-inventor of Plant-e, the Wageningen spin-off that generates electricity from plant roots. He now wants to develop a process that converts electricity into food.

Under normal circumstances, a plant uses sunlight to grow. However, the first step of photosynthesis in plants – the conversion of sunlight into sugars – is inefficient, explains Strik. He argues that we could also generate energy from wind turbines and solar panels and use that electricity to produce food. This would require a biological electrochemical system.

Within his group, PhD candidates and a postdoc already study systems in which bacteria produce chemicals using power. He will now research whether he can also grow plants with electricity in a closed bioreactor. Eventually, the system should efficiently convert water, nutrients and CO2 into biomass.

Strik: ‘It’s a new way to produce food, because we skip the first step – the photosynthesis. We want to produce the food in a closed system in the dark. The advantage of this approach is that it can be done around the clock.’ It is the type of food system that one could bring along on a space journey, claims Strik. ‘If it works, it would be a closed system that efficiently uses energy and nutrients that plants need. We have calculated that a food reactor the size of a refrigerator should be sufficient to support three people.’

Strik conducts this research together with Mathijs van der Zwart, a master’s student in Biotechnology, who already created a pilot for the production of algae using electricity for his thesis in process technology.