Igor Vassilev wants to turn carbon dioxide into food
For Igor Vassilev, Research Pitching Competition 2019 finalist from the University of Tampere, carbon dioxide isn’t just a harmful emission but a fantastic feedstock for food production.
Your research idea focuses on electrifying bacteria to transform C02 into protein. Why do we need this?
The population in the world is increasing and supplies of high-quality protein are challenged. We need to be able to supply food for everyone and everywhere in the world, independently of the location.
My challenging aim is to show that food production can be achieved in one single bioreactor, and it requires only C02 as the sole carbon feedstock and renewable energy as the sole power source. The process would be controlled electrochemically, so neither toxic or harmful chemicals or dangerous gas mixtures would be required or produced. My research idea can potentially develop the most sustainable and cost-effective food production technology these days.
Sounds good! What made you want to explore this?
I have always been fascinated by microbes in general. Little cell factories can do so many things people can’t! And if you do the right research the right way, you can benefit from the amazing things little cells do.
How do you feel about pitching?
Pitching is fun! I have pitched before, during my PhD studies in Australia I participated in a pitching competition and had some success. I really enjoyed it. And I think it’s very important to make more people understand what you do as a researcher to make things better in the society.
What made you want to become a researcher?
I’ve always been interested in solving problems and trying to bring theories to practice. I enjoy it. My mum says that already when I was in primary school I said I want to become a chemist. Well, I didn’t exactly become a chemist, but quite close! So I guess this is the way I’ve always wanted to go.
Where do you see yourself and your research idea in 20 years?
My dream as a researcher is quite simple: I want to improve the world with my research to create a better, environmentally sustainable future. . In 20 years I hope I will be working as a professor and sharing my knowledge to students while I’m still doing research. When it comes to my research idea, I hope that in 20 years this will be one of the main ways to produce food globally.
Igor’s wild idea:
Industrial processes burn fossil fuels for the production of chemicals, heat and electricity, which emits a huge amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. While many people think of CO2 as a harmful greenhouse gas, I think of it as a fantastic feedstock for production of food. But how do you convert CO2 into food in a sustainable and efficient manner? The answer is: Microbial electrochemical synthesis. This biotechnology allows to power slow-growing microorganisms with renewable electricity from solar energy. In that way, the supercharged microbes have enough energy to transform the CO2 into vinegar (acetic acid). This step happens in a bioreactor in the absence of oxygen (anaerobic). In the next step, the vinegar is transferred electrochemically through a membrane into a second compartment of the bioreactor, where fast-growing bacteria eat the vinegar in the presence of oxygen (aerobic) allowing rapid biomass formation. Such cell biomass is rich in edible proteins and the entire cells can be processed into environmental-friendly, safe and nutritious food. This novel research idea has great potential to support the development of a circular bio-economy and to “kill two birds with one stone”: The sustainable low-carbon footprint production process will counter global warming and will provide food security for the rapid growing earth population by minimizing the need of arable land.
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