Russian futurists of Clubhouse: building a bioreactor to grow the smallest vegetable on Earth🤯
With the food&climate crisis coming, innovations in how we grow our food will determine how many people we’ll be able to feed in the near future.
How I met top innovators on Clubhouse?
Reading the title of the article, you’ve probably got questions. Like a hell of a lot of questions. Does this even make sense?
I was casually chilling on Clubhouse when I saw a room called: “screwing with biotech🌱🧬🔬” or sth. In Russian, it sounds wayyy cooler. I love biotech so I joined. To my surprise, it wasn’t clickbait and people were actually talking about biotechnology.
I was shocked and happy listening to people with real expertise answering questions about modern biology & discussing complex concepts in an easy-to-understand way for an average person.
That’s how I met the Biovolf team. Shortly after, we started hosting rooms together. Then I proposed to write something dope about them — they would be foolish to say no ‘cuz I make dope articles. And they’re not foolish, they’re scientists— so they said yes.
First, let me introduce you to a friend of ours
— small(est) vegetable with the size of 0.7 to 1.5 millimeters
Despite being so tiny, it has the potential to be the next superfood. Actually no. It has the potential to become the next veggie that we eat in our day-to-day lives yet with the nutritional value of a superfood.
Just like tomatoes and cucumbers but much more nutritious.
- Up to 40% of protein on a dry mass
- 9 essential amino acids
- Polyphenols, iron, zinc
- B12 vitamin
It’s healthy, we get it. But so are other foods. Why grow Wolffia?
- 80 million animals are killed each year for food, meat contains cholesterol
- 1 in 9 people is not getting enough food because of poverty and environmental conditions for farming — Wolffia is cheap&fast to grow
- United Nations suppose that there will be a 2 billion increase in population by 2050 — we won’t have enough resources(including time) to grow food. Our systems need to become more efficient
Benefits of Wolffia:
- Ethical — it’s vegan yet can replace meat
- Grows super fast — can double its mass in 60 hours
- Sustainable — requires little water, land and energy to grow
- Cheap — new methods allow 1kg of Wolffia to cost as low as $0.16
Amino acids are building blocks of protein. There are 20 kinds of them.
Humans can produce 10 out of 20 amino acids. Another 10 must be supplied through food — amino acids cannot be stored in a human body, they need to be provided on a daily basis. Muscles and organs start degrading when they don’t get enough amino acids, the immunity decreases, and so on.
Wolffia is high in EEA(essential amino acids). In fact, it has 9 out of 10 amino acids that need to be present in the human diet + 8 that the human body can produce.
There’s another famous tiny green superfood — algae. Well, Wolffia eats it for breakfast(note: as for now, not literally).
- Wolffia’s a flowering plant, just like fruits and vegetables — tomatoes, apples, quinoa, avocados, etc. Algae is a bacteria
- While Algae is a dietary supplement, Wolffia is a normal vegetable
- Wolffia is easier & safer to grow and package
I made a table comparing Wolffia with other vegetables.
But can you actually eat it? Trick question.
Hint: Why else would I talk about how nutritious and tasty it is? xD
Tastes like normal salad or cucumber, yet tiny & crunchy. In some Asian countries, Wolffia makes up to 70% of the daily menu.
You can boil it, you can dry it, you can fry it, you can eat it raw:
— Make smoothies
— Make fresh juice
— Add to salads
— Replace side dishes/grains like rice, quinoa
You can eat both fresh&frozen Wolffia🧊🌱. You can cook it or eat it fresh.
It can also be used to make high-protein flour for baking and pasta-making:
— bread, pizza, croissant&other desserts
— all kinds of pasta
As Wolffia is so high in protein, it can be used to make powder for protein shakes & protein bars.
Wolffia can be the main component in meat replacements aka alternative meat aka vegan meat.
- Animal food
How can we produce it?
The traditional way of growing
How: Ponds and lakes on the water surface
Where: Countries with tropical and equatorial climate
You’ve probably guessed it right — it’s not a great solution. It takes a lot of space, it’s hard to take care of it. Also, Wolffia has a high bioaccumulation capacity which means that it’s great at absorbing stuff(like a sponge). Sometimes this stuff includes toxic substances that are present in many natural reservoirs due to pollution.
However, if we grow Wolffia in artificial human-made systems we can use this quality to our advantage.
Excluding toxic substances, we can add microelements like potassium, calcium, iodine, and all kinds of flavorings to make Wolffia whatever we need it to be.
The new way of growing — Biovolf🤓🤯
How: with a bioreactor
Resources used: water, air, electricity, fertilizers
Endless Wolffia, harvest every day
The cool thing is when you put Wolffia in once — it never ends. It keeps on growing and growing — and it grows fast. You can collect-it-every-day type of fast.
There are vessels with the biomass — that’s where the magic happens aka Wolffia grows 2x in just 60 hours. A container for a horizontal bioreactor is 7–12 centimeters in height + there’s some air at the top. Wolffia mostly grows on the surface.
It’s automated — no human needed
The person sets parameters, the computer keeps the environment within them. In the future, everything will be automated: sensors collect data from containers and optimize conditions for better growth — they control temperature, water level, oxygen, acidity, hardness, TDS, CO2, and other factors. The conditions are based on the planting mode chosen by the owner. Water filtration also goes with no human involvement.
Btw, it controls the environment for both water and air.
As the biomass grows, it needs to be collected which happens automatically. The bigger Wolffia is collected and removed from the Bioreactor. Then you can eat it fresh, cook it, make high-protein flour…
My dad: does their bioreactor also eat Wolffia for me too?🤓🤓
What if we added AI and some magic?
Right now, Biovolf is using simple algorithms that control the conditions inside the bioreactor — and it’s already super-efficient. But you can make it even better with neural nets(AI). Biovolf team is working on it, they just closed a seed round to continue developing AI and vertical bioreactors.
Are more efficient than horizontal but harder to make. In them, Wolffia fills the whole vessel, not just the surface of the water. You need to make sure the circulation works well — that Wolffia is changing its position, moving up and down in the vessel. Vertical bioreactors require less space, less water(and fertilizers), arguably less energy.
Why are the lights are pink?
It’s pretty but a bit more complex than just pretty.
Indoor farms(including vertical farms and bioreactors) need artificial lights. A lot of lights, actually. It’s quite costly so farmers were looking for ways on how to cut down the costs(power usage).
They found the solution — turns out, plants don’t need the whole spectrum of ROYGBV(combines into white) — only R and B wavelengths are necessary for growth — so they only use red and blue which combine into beautiful pink color. Besides reducing energy consumption this method helps cut down on cooling the farm as LED lights don’t produce that much heat.
- Short answer: it’s cheaper — reduces energy consumption, therefore, the bills & environmental impact.
Note from Ilya Paraushkin, CEO of Biovolf: it’s true for most plants, but not for a water plant like Wolffia which is an exception. Photosynthesis works differently for water plants. Wolffia needs more than R and B wavelengths. We don’t just use pink, we have to change the lights during the day from one to another. If you were to grow something else in our bioreactor, you wouldn’t need to do that. Vertical farms don’t either— they just use pink.
Dasha’s note: I decided to leave that paragraph about pink lights because it’s an interesting fact about the future of farming(vertical farms).
Btw, you can chill in Bali while your bioreactor is working somewhere in Siberia, Russia. You can control it remotely. And, yes, you can place it anywhere — in any climate zone. The climate inside wouldn’t change.
A simplified business model:
- They sell bioreactors to new generation farmers who can then sell Wolffia to consumers, farms(feeding cattle), companies who will make Wolffia flour into protein shakes, pasta, etc.
- Small bioreactors to consumers.
To sum up
With new technologies like Biovolf’s bioreactor, we can grow Wolffia anytime and anywhere VERY fast, cheap, and sustainable.
- The development of new foods(or new ways of growing foods) is vital to the needs of the rapidly expanding population.
- Food systems need to become more efficient, meaning require less energy, fertilizers, and land when producing more highly nutritious food.
- We need to make our products more nutritious, we need to be able to accommodate animal-free diets that still give enough calories and nutrients to people without breaking the bank. Currently, vegan food is often expensive.
Biovolf is the company changing the food system by making the most efficient way to grow one of the most nutritious vegetables.
They are growing Wolffia in bioreactors.
My website: dashanikolaeva.com
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