NASA researchers back in the 1960s had this idea that it was possible to convert the carbon dioxide exhaled by astronauts into a physical protein that they could eat. NASA dropped the idea but the work was uncovered decades later by physicist Lisa Dyson, who has turned the research into an alternative meat company, Air Protein. The company just secured $32 million in funding to put toward commercializing the seemingly wild idea.
Creating protein from “thin air” is not as farfetched as you might think. The idea actually comes from plants, which basically do exactly that by converting carbon dioxide into sugars. The NASA researchers in 1967 investigated a microbe called hydrogenotrophs, which, using a process similar to plants, produce a flavorless, pale brown powder that is about 80% protein. Hydrogenotrophs can actually convert carbon dioxide into “food” even more rapidly than plants. What’s more, they can be found everywhere from soils to sediments of both freshwater and saltwater, and even the human gut.
Air Protein uses a fermentation process similar to that used in dairies and breweries to “farm” the protein. Inside a fermentor, microbes consume carbon dioxide along with a blend of “mineral nutrients,” in turn leaving behind the flour-like powder which has twice the protein as soy. Dyson says the protein is superior to plant-derived alternatives because it is a “complete protein” with the same amino acid profile as chicken or beef.
Air Protein will use the $32 million injection to accelerate the commercialization of the protein, which Dyson says is currently the most sustainable approach to meat alternatives available. She told Food Dive that air-based meat growers will be able to produce the same amount of protein on a farm the size of Walt Disney World as that produced on a soy farm the size of Texas. Big names that participated in the funding round include ADM Ventures, Barclays, and GV (formerly Google Ventures).
Air Protein is a spinoff from Dyson’s other company, Kiverdi, which uses a similar technology for turning CO2 into a supply-chain replacement for plastics as well as an ingredient like palm oil. Dyson used Kiverdi to develop the process and then began to develop human food recipes for the protein powder. She says they spent most of 2020 developing textures and even conducted consumer taste tests. The funding will allow Dyson to bring on a team solely dedicated to Air Protein, including a meat R&D staff. The company has already begun the process of getting GRAS certification for its protein ingredient so it can be sold to U.S. consumers.
ADM Ventures will also provide some of its expertise in fermentation for ingredients and developing products for other uses to help Air Protein bring its product to market, according to a press release. ADM Ventures has also funded alternative protein maker Nature’s Fynd (previously Sustainable Bioproducts) and dairy-alternative company Perfect Day. Air Protein has not announced what their first product might be but aims to have something on the market by next year. It sounds like it will be some type of “meat” made from a combination of the powder and other ingredients.
Air Protein is not the only company developing this microbe technology. Solar Foods, a Finland startup that uses a similar process with a different type of microbe, plans to have a commercial product on the market next year. Another company using microbes to make protein is California-based Calaysta, which develops feed for aquaculture. There is also NovoNutrients, another fish feed maker that has plans to expand into human proteins which it currently intends to supply to other alternative meat makers rather than develop its own stand-alone product. (Sources: Fast Company, Food Dive, ThomasNet)