Ville Pihlajaniemi wants to turn wood into food

Research Pitching Competition 2018 finalist Ville Pihlajaniemi from VTT Technical Research Center of Finland  thinks cellulosic sugar could be one solution to the food crisis our planet is inevitably facing in the future.


Your research idea is about making wood cellulose digestible for humans. What is new about this idea?

The concept of using cellulose in food production is new in itself. Previous research has focused mostly on turning cellulosic sugar into biofuels. We want to bring a new perspective to this technology and examine its applications in food production. In practice, it’s about breaking down cellulose components. These components can then be refined into syrup, protein and even microbial oil. This invention could end up covering the whole food pie chart. First we need research to find out if it’s possible to make cellulose safely digestible for humans.

What made you want to get on Slush stage and pitch your work?

First of all it’s an amazing experience and I think I’m going to learn a lot from it. It is also a great opportunity for my organization VTT to present our research and technology out in the public.

When did you decide to become a researcher?

Actually, I have wanted to be a researcher since I was very young. I have always had quite a scientific mindset so it was a very natural choice for me.

What would you like to achieve in your career as a researcher?

I want to try and explain different phenomena and develop theories based on that. On the other hand, applying these theories on a practical level is very important to me. What makes this work meaningful to me is that the goal is to develop a useful application in the end.

Where do you think you and your field of research will be in 20 years?

I hope to be an internationally renowned researcher in a good position. By then I think it will be possible to produce food from wood, some kind of business will have developed around it too.

Ville’s wild idea:

The human kind will face starvation with the current rate of population growth. Meanwhile, the world’s largest reserve of carbohydrates, cellulose, is indigestible to humans. This is not the case for all animals as cows and other ruminants are able to digest grass and straw. The Taste of Wood is a vision of utilization of cellulosic raw materials also for humans. It is spawned from vigorous development of biorefinery processes where cellulosic sugars are produced from side streams of food and agricultural industry, such as straw, grass and ultimately wood. Currently these sugars are converted into biofuels and chemicals with chemical processes unsuitable for food production. We want to turn this convention around by designing a process for producing food grade sugars from wood.

Wood and grasses provide an immense a source of carbohydrates, rich in soluble dietary fibre and prebiotic sugars, antioxidants, protein and bioactive lignin. Sugars can also be biotechnologically converted to fungal protein and oil, fulfilling the food circle of essential nutrients. This opens a completely new horizon in food industry, directly enabling innovative speciality products in food, brewing and ingredient industry. At a broader scope, it provides a completely new source of food for the human kind. In this project we will demonstrate the utilization of cellulosic syrups in food, and evaluate their nutritional contribution and potential, without forgetting the assessment of food safety.