Lab-grown coffee utilizes bioreactors to increase sustainability

Coffee, one of the most popular beverages in the world, comes with a dark side: exploitation of human workers, in some cases, as well as environmental problems like river pollution. Researchers with the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland have published a new study detailing a more sustainable way to produce enough coffee to satisfy the demand for the beans — and it involves bioreactors.

Unlike traditional coffee crops, the newly produced 'lab grown' coffee was made possible using a process called cellular agriculture, which involves plant cells and bioreactors featuring nutrients to produce specific products in a laboratory setting. The resulting batch of coffee is, according to the researchers, the same as traditional coffee, at least in terms of taste and scent.

The cellular agriculture process involved starting coffee cell cultures and establishing cell lines for the lab work, according to the researchers. Established technologies are used to make this unique type of coffee production, though it may take a few more years for the scientists to get regulatory approval for their process and scale up the tech for mass production.

The lab-grown coffee is, at this time, still considered experimental and thusly cannot be provided to the public. Assuming the coffee gets Novel Food approval in Europe and FDA authorization in the US, it may one day be offered to consumers as an alternative to coffee beans sourced from ordinary crops.

VTT's Dr. Heiko Rischer, the study's team leader, said in a statement:

The experience of drinking the very first cup was exciting. I estimate we are only four years away from ramping up production and having regulatory approval in place. Growing plant cells requires specific expertise when it is time to scale and optimize the process. Downstream processing and product formulation together with regulatory approval and market introduction are additional steps on the way to a commercial product. That said, we have now proved that lab-grown coffee can be a reality.