Henk Noorman: harnessing CO2 for sustainable food production
The future of carbon is circular! Underground carbon should stay underground as much as possible. Instead, we should fully commit to above-ground carbon. Much attention goes to plant material and plastic recycling as above-ground sources. But given the large and growing demand for carbon-based products, we can no longer ignore CO2 as a third route, even if it is currently expensive and requires a lot of energy.

In the FutureCarbonNL innovation programme - submitted to Round 3 of the National Growth Fund - we focus on research, development and demonstration of technologies that maximise efficient COinto new building blocks. Not only for new, sustainable materials and fuels, but also for (animal) food. 

Impending protein shortage

For the latter category, CO2 in the picture as an important supplementary source. An ever-growing world population, with an increasing share of the middle class, threatens a major shortage of protein. There are limits to agriculture and livestock as protein suppliers, and there are growing bottlenecks: soy protein is linked to deforestation, fishmeal to overfishing. More generally, plant and animal protein are under pressure from inefficiencies in the chains and land-use problems such as nitrogen and phosphate emissions, excessive consumption of fresh water, loss of biodiversity and pesticide application.

Protein from CO2

Here lies a great opportunity for chemistry! After all, protein can also be made sustainably from CO2. In addition to CO2 it also requires green electricity or hydrogen to first make platform molecules, as well as ammonia based on green hydrogen and air. These intermediates can be fairly easily transformed into natural, microbial protein via precision fermentation.


Nothing new under the sun; nature has been fermenting for billions of years and industrial 'single cell protein' processes have been around for half a century. What is new is that the raw materials do not come from the land or from natural gas, but from CO2. And as an added bonus, you get oxygen, which is released during the preparation of hydrogen, and is great for boosting protein production as high as possible. Factories can thus remain relatively compact.

New food chain

This is a powerful circular perspective for carbon: the chemistry that, hitching a ride on the energy transition, enables a new food chain. This can replace fishmeal and soy protein in animal feed without the emissions of carbon, nitrogen and phosphate, and less use of land and water. Protein from micro-organisms can take the pressure off in agriculture and animal husbandry, and due to its favourable location, infrastructure and knowledge base, the Netherlands has a great opportunity to export knowledge and expertise and thus become a global leader).

Henk Noorman
(Senior Science Fellow Sustainable Biosystems Engineering at DSM-Firmenich)