Cultivating food from the air we breathe: How decades-old NASA technology is still delivering disruptive tech today
The “Replicator” machine seen on the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” television series was imagined as a 24th century technology that could create food out of thin air, but the device was not strictly something picked out of the creative brain cells of Gene Roddenberry. The concept was actually considered and researched in the 1960s by NASA scientists. Although the space agency never brought it to fruition, the research and basic concept has been lying on the shelf, collecting dust in a back room at the space agency – until now.
The Apollo Space Program, and the Gift that Keeps On Giving
The early space program did a lot more than manufacture spaceships and go to the moon and back. The enormous volume of pure research that went on at NASA during that time led in the ensuing years to new technologies and innovations that the original space scientists never even imagined. The technology transfer from NASA to the private sector created an everlasting economic boom, created wealth and prosperity, and commercialized technology that has benefited the nation and the general public. President Barack Obama, speaking to the National Academy of Sciences, noted that the space program has led “not just to those first steps on the moon, but also to giant leaps in our understanding here at home. The Apollo program itself produced technologies that have improved kidney dialysis and water purification systems; sensors to test for hazardous gasses; energy-saving building materials; and fire-resistant fabrics used by firefighters and soldiers. And, more broadly, the enormous investment of that era—in science and technology, in education and research funding—produced a great outpouring of curiosity and creativity, the benefits of which have been incalculable.”
Making a decades-old NASA dream come true
“We stand on the shoulders of giants,” said Dr. Lisa Dyson, CEO and founder of Air Protein, which produces sustainable meat alternatives from elements found in the air. “The question they asked was, how do you feed astronauts on long space journeys to Mars or a distant planet?” It seems the Star Trek creators weren’t too far off the mark. “That’s the equivalent of asking, how do you recycle carbon? We’re carbon-based life forms. We need carbon to survive. And they were looking at different ways of making food very efficiently, using minimal space, minimal resources.”
Dyson says that the space program research in the 1960s imagined a process that was similar to fermentation. The original thinking used CO2 as one of four inputs, including an energy source, to create food.
If anybody could create a product rivalling the imagined Star Trek food replicator, it would be Dyson. Possibly one of the smartest people on the planet, she is a physicist with a flair for creative problem-solving, who has multiple advanced degrees and conducted research at the most prestigious universities in the world.
Part of the inspiration for her research into sustainable alternative protein however, comes from her work as a volunteer in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina, which was her first encounter with how a major weather event impacts people. “These huge weather events are happening more frequently,” she said. “Climate science tells us, and we’re seeing those 100-year storm events happening more frequently, and the droughts are getting worse. These things have all been predicted and we’re seeing the effects today. It’s only going to get worse. That’s what caused me to start thinking about climate change, and how I could be a part of the solution.”
How do you make food from air?
Dyson and her team picked up where NASA left off all those many years ago, building on that concept and incredibly, making it happen. Why? According to Dyson, “We started out by saying, we have a lot of carbon here on Earth, and we’re going to have ten billion people by 2050. We need to figure out how to feed those people in a way that doesn’t use up as much of the land resources that are being used now, and which is sustainable for the planet.”
We can start by thinking of how plants, like soybeans, grow from a seed to become a protein source. “Plants use carbon dioxide. This is a process that uses that, but that goes much faster. We can make protein in a matter of hours or days, whereas it may take months for the plant to grow.” A major benefit of Dyson’s Air Protein process over simply growing more soybeans is that it uses much less land. “It would take a soy farm the size of Texas to produce the same amount of protein as an Air Protein farm the size of Walt Disney World.”
Dyson describes the process as being based on a fermentation process, similar to making yogurt, although instead of adding milk to begin the culture process, Air Protein uses basic elements like CO2, a nitrogen source, water, and electricity.
Dyson’s team took three important steps: They took the early NASA technology out of the conceptual stage and developed it, they made it scalable so that it would be possible to produce protein on a large scale, and they made it practical so that it could be commercialized and used virtually anyplace on earth (or for that matter, anywhere beyond earth).
The Next Generation of meat alternatives
The idea of meat alternatives has been around for a long time, from soy-based products, to cultured meat grown from actual animal cells, to protein powder made from insects. The idea of a “veggie burger” has been around only since about the 1980s, but meatless protein dishes have been around for thousands of years. Falafel, anyone? But while other alternative protein and meat substitute manufacturers continue to focus on old technology to produce endless varieties of soy-based burgers, ground grasshopper powder and lab-grown meat slurries cultivated out of animal cells, Lisa Dyson – and the NASA scientists that came before her – had a better idea for an entirely new category of protein-rich food.
The demand for, and potential of alternative protein has not been lost to financial backers who have recognized this segment as one worthy of their dollars. According to the Good Food Institute, investment in plant based, cell cultivated, and fermented protein companies reached $3.1 billion in 2020, up from $1 billion in 2019. Air Protein, as the most innovative companies in this segment, has gained substantial backing, with a $32 million Series A funding round – a round led by some of the biggest names in venture capital, including ADM Ventures, Barclays and GV (formerly Google Ventures). The industry as a whole is set to grow to $140 billion by 2029.
It’s not just sustainable, it’s carbon negative
It’s undeniable that food production takes up space, costs money and consumes resources. While a beef lot certainly consumes more than a soybean farm, even soy and other plant-based proteins consume a lot of resources. “We’re the only company that’s actually making carbon-negative protein,” says Dyson. “The greenhouse gas footprint of our proteins is actually negative. We’re excited about anyone who moves us closer to sustainability and away from beef, which is hugely detrimental from a greenhouse gas standpoint and land utilization standpoint. The plant-based alternatives are definitely taking it in the right direction, and we’re taking it a step further by being carbon negative.”
Industrial and animal agriculture make up the second largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and scientists claim that we will need to significantly rethink our food production methods to avoid a global crisis.
It has long been a goal to minimize the carbon footprint of food production. The Air Protein process not only minimizes it, it eliminates it completely, making protein from elements of the air, in vertical fresh air farms that can be built almost anywhere. “Think about making a steak,” says Dyson. “It takes two years to make a steak. It takes a lot of land, and you’re feeding that cow soy that you grew somewhere else, and the greenhouse gas emissions of that cow is equivalent to a car. If you say soy is an alternative, you’re going to use a lot less land, but you still have to clear the land, and in some cases modern agriculture has to clear a lot of virgin land and rainforest in order to make room for it to perform. When we get to ten billion people, there’s going to be more and more need to find that farmable land.
But what does it taste like?
What Air Protein creates is a type of protein-rich flour, which is nutrient-dense, contains all the essential amino acids, is rich in vitamins and minerals – including B12, which is missing in some other plant-based alternatives. From that flour, culinary techniques can be applied to transform it into something delicious. “Think about going from flour to pasta,” said Dyson. “Heat and pressure allows us to create the textures you expect. We’re defining meat by the end product, and the flavors and textures you’re expecting, versus specifically where it came from.”
Air Protein has not yet produced a steak, but an early pilot program used the protein rich powder to create an air-based chicken analog. During a tasting, Dyson said, “There were people there who said that if we had not told them it wasn’t traditional chicken, they would not have known it was our air-based chicken. It was able to satisfy their senses, the sight, the smell, the taste so that they really felt that it was chicken. One person from our tasting suggested that she could serve it at a poolside barbeque, and no one would know it wasn’t chicken.
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