Chicken of the Air
There are many plant-based meat companies out there, each one boasting a more sustainable product than the next. But they’re all inefficient.
They’re all inefficient because of the 10% rule. Only 10% of the nutrients a plant receives becomes part of the plant matter. And then there’s the whole, we only eat the tiny beans off the soy plant and the rest gets put to lower use thing.
Not to mention the sprawling fields full of pesticides that suck up 70% of all water used on the planet, and how we’ve cleared the same amount of land as Africa and South America combined for agriculture.
Wow! It’s clear this isn’t a very sustainable way of producing food, and definitely won’t be able to feed the 10 Billion people expected to populated Earth in 2050.
A Forgotten Innovation
All this was on NASA’s mind back in the ’60s and ’70s. How would they be able to feed a crew of people flying around in space if all their current food system had to offer was inefficient, resource-intensive fields? You can’t exactly transfer that to a spaceship.
And so the scientists went back to first principles and made use of what they already had plenty of on board: CO2! Their idea was to use microorganisms to capture the CO2 exhaled by astronauts and convert it into a carbon-rich crop. Yes, food quite literally out of thin air.
This would get eaten by the people on board, they’d do some more breathing, and it’d happen all over again!
Despite being a potentially revolutionary idea if they’d continued, the project was put on the shelf once they realized space travel wasn’t advancing quickly enough to have galactic dinner parties anytime soon and alas, the idea was soon forgotten. Until…
When Lisa Dyson first came across this fascinating research from NASA, she’d been looking to find a way to make use of the deadly CO2 in our atmosphere in a positive way.
Dyson realized Earth is just like a spaceship–we have limited resources and need to learn to recycle nutrients quickly in order to feed our growing population.
So although her Ph.D. was in theoretical high energy physics, she dove into the synthetic biology world and founded Air Protein with co-founder Dr. John Reed.
Air Protein, a spinoff of Dyson’s original company Kiverdi (which is using a similar process to make palm oil and plastics), received a $32 million Series A round in January 2021 with backing from companies like Google and ADM.
But how the heck can one possibly get protein from the air?? Well, it’s just like plants do.
During photosynthesis, plants use energy from the sun to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, then use the hydrogen combined with the CO2 in the air to form sugars and proteins, releasing oxygen as a byproduct.
Plants aren’t the only thing that can turn CO2 and hydrogen into carbs and proteins; so can microorganisms! Especially hydrogenotrophs, which are what NASA was studying in the 1960s. These are single-celled microorganisms that metabolize hydrogen for energy.
First, the scientists at Air Protein go out in nature to find some hydrogenotrophs; they’re typically found below the surface of the earth. This means places like hydrothermal vents and soil. Then, the microbes are brought back to the lab and screened for the best ones.
Next they’re left to multiply in nice, comfy conditions until they’re ready to go into the bioreactor.
Then, once in their new metal home, they’re fed CO2 captured from the air and electrolyzed water, also from the air. The majority of the inputs just come from the air, but some minerals like nitrogen are also added to keep the microbes happy.
This process is called precision fermentation and is just like brewing beer or making yogurt, something we’ve been doing for hundreds of years.
After just a couple of hours, compared to meat’s couple of months/years, the water can be separated and the resulting slurry dried into a powder.
In the future, Air Protein plans on sourcing CO2 from direct-air-capture facilities to put what’s captured to good use and have a consistent supply. And, since their bioreactors run on renewable energy, they’re essentially getting something from nothing.
Where It’s Going
The powder made is extremely nutritious. It’s ~80% protein compared to the 40% in soy protein flour, and is a complete protein. Air Protein is also rich in vitamins and minerals including B12 which is crucial for a healthy nervous system, but hard to get on a vegan diet (and not present in soy).
Currently, Air Protein is working on making a chicken-like product called Air Meat, but the powder itself is tasteless and can be used to fortify a variety of foods. It could even be sold plain as a protein powder, like similar company Solar Foods in Finland plans to do.
What truly sets Air Protein apart from other alt. meat startups is how scalable the process is.
As Lisa Dyson put it, “You need a farm that’s the size of Texas to give you the same amount of protein that you get from an Air Protein production process the size of Walt Disney World.”
Because it can be vertically farmed with no sunlight, it can be made just about anywhere–not just on arable land. This also lessens the impact extreme weather events have on the food system.
But Is It Natural?
As with most new food innovations, there’s going to be skeptics who run away because they think it’s “unnatural.” Vince from The Flexitarian Times puts it very well: It all depends on your definition of natural.
If you went back a few thousand years and put a modern ear of corn in the hands of a hunter-gatherer, would they even know what it was?
Or show them humongous, antibiotic-fed, factory-farmed chickens and see if they thought that was normal.
Today, everything in our food system comes from the thoughtful manipulation of living organisms. There’s no reason why this is any less natural than what we’re already eating.
- Despite being better for the environment than meat, even plant-based proteins have flaws
- Air Protein is a startup using a process first created by NASA in the ’60s to make protein out of air using microorganisms
- This is a super scalable solution that has the versatility to be used in many food products to boost nutrition
Here are some of my favorite resources I found while researching the topic.
Here's How Lisa Dyson's Startup Is Reducing World Hunger AND Combating Climate Change
Lisa Dyson combined her discovery of microbes that convert CO2 into nutrients with space-age technology developed by…