Soylent's Real Plan: Replace Food With Algae

"Based on my calculations a single 100k sq ft warehouse could produce enough Soylent to feed all of Los Angele​s."

Rob Rhinehart has long dreamed of creating the ingredients of his grey-goo food replacement, Soylent, from scratch. The company's—and Rob's—mantra is essentially "be more efficient." (Officially, now, it's "Use Less. Do More," but same deal.) His provocation has always been that we should spend less time and energy on the entire enterprise of eating; Soylent is supposed to improve efficiency both for bodies and whole systems of production.

So no one's much surprised that Rhinehart and company are trying to inch closer to his goal of bio-engineering a strain of algae that produces Soylent in toto, as absurd as the aim may sound. (To be fair, three years ago, the notion that a homebrew food replacement shake would be reaping millions of dollars in Silicon Valley venture capital might have sounded pretty absurd, too.) With the announcement of Soylent 2.0, which ships in ready-mixed bottles, Rhinehart has added algae into the mix as a crucial ingredient. And he says he plans on going much, much further.

Soylent promo materials.

The algae in Soylent 2.0 is grown by the biotech company Solazyme, in a facility owned by the Archer Daniels Midland, the food processing giant.

"The oil is then pressed out much like olive oil," Rhinehart told me in an email. "It's amazingly efficient. Entire tanks can be filled in days." Solazyme calls the stuff AlgaWise; in its latest earnings report, it presumably referred to Soylent when it noted that "an exciting new beverage company is launching a meal replacement drink made with an AlgaWise oil."

Two years ago, when I was living off of the beta version, Rob told me that his ultimate vision for Soylent, the totally ideal non-food food, was to grow the stuff with nothing but sunlight, air, and H20, in algae-filled bioreactors. Then he'd distribute the product directly to residences, where it would come out of a tap, like water.

"Based on my calculations a single 100k sq ft warehouse could produce enough Soylent to feed all of Los Angeles"

He elaborated on said ambition in a 2014 New Yorker piece: "Rhinehart's real goal, however, is more ambitious: the company has been testing an omega-3 oil that comes from algae instead of from fish oil. Eventually, Rhinehart hopes, he will figure out how to source all of Soylent's ingredients [from algae]—carbohydrates, protein, lipids. 'Then we won't need farms' to make Soylent, he said. Better yet, he added, would be to design a Soylent-producing 'superorganism': a single strain of alga that pumps out Soylent all day. Then we won't need factories."

I asked Rhinehart if that's still the plan.

"Exactly," he replied. "And we've taken a big step already with 20 percent of total calories coming from algae. Next the focus is on protein. I see no reason why we can't get to total single cell synthesis within a few years." And he says he's got a blueprint for how he'll get there.

"In the interest of building a sustainable business to fund our research we've been focused primarily on product improvements and new products, like the launch today, but I've also worked on setting up infrastructure including lab building and recruiting and drawn up a roadmap for reaching the goal of cell synthesis, starting with protein," Rhinehart said. "This process has two modules: one strain engineering to develop and optimize the organism that produces, the other bioreactor engineering to make an ideal growth environment for the strain(s)."

In other words, he wants to bioengineer the Soylent-spewing algae, and build a facility that can nurture and churn it out—and do it all efficiently, naturally.

"In the future Soylent may be made in modular, somewhat centralized photobioreactor facilities," he continued. "Based on my calculations a single 100k sq ft warehouse could produce enough to feed all of Los Angeles, and one could easily scale up or down capacity. Or, perhaps the bioreactors will eventually be simple enough that everyone will have their own at home that makes food on demand. All that is required is electricity, gathered by solar I hope, and ambient CO2 and nitrogen. Water is also needed but that could be cycled through so there is negligible loss."

If that sounds science fictional or dystopian to you—giant reactors churning out algal slush en masse—well, I'm sure Rhinehart doesn't care. He seems to be growing even more ascetic, increasingly spartan in his own extreme outlook. In a recent blog post, he described how he had gone off the grid, hooked up some solar panels, and gotten rid of his fridge entirely. Then his kitchen. He's off food and power now. Gizmodo accused him of displaying "all the hallmarks of a cult leader."

"The first space colonies will have no coal power plants. I am ready," he wrote. "For now though, as I am driven through the gleaming city, my hunger peacefully at bay, I have visions of the parking lots and grocery stores replaced by parks and community centers, power plants retrofitted as museums and galleries." With the algal bioreactors and solar panels will come leisurely peace; that's the dream. If humanity can become efficient enough to pull it off.

"Traffic and trash and pollution will evaporate," Rob concludes, "if only we are willing to adapt some routines."