Air Protein is developing a protein ingredient from edible microbes, cultivated with a mixture of excess atmospheric carbon dioxide, oxygen and hydrogen gas. The process is known as air fermentation and requires no arable land, sunlight, or favorable climatic conditions. This protein ingredient made out of air will initially be used to manufacture imitation meat products.
Challenge: Providing fast-growing, sustainable proteins to an ever-growing world population
Throughout our existence, humanity has depended exclusively on the biological process of photosynthesis to take carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere and convert it into nutrients that feed us either directly in the form of grains, fruit, or vegetables, or indirectly, as meat or dairy. But our complete reliance on photosynthesis to transform CO2 into food has left us vulnerable to biophysical and geographical limitations.
Crops require soil, water, and a specific set of favorable climatic conditions to grow. And Livestock uses even more resources than crops. Altogether, agriculture occupies 30% of the land on Earth.
“Scallop” made from Air Protein. Photo: Air Protein
As the climate crisis gets more acute, we’ve now reached a critical point in our history. A growing human population with an insatiable desire for animal protein threatens to stretch our future global food production system beyond planetary boundaries.
Can we stop wrecking the planet and mitigate climate change by making food out of the excess carbon in the air? Providing an efficient, non-agricultural method for producing meat substitutes (and other foodstuffs) could be part of a solution to the existential challenge of providing sufficient nutritious and affordable food for a growing world population on a planet high on CO2.
Initiative: Making meat out of air
In 2008, while looking for solutions to curb climate change, researchers Lisa Dyson and John Reed discovered NASA reports from the 1960s-1970s about recycling astronauts’ exhaled CO2 to create sustenance for long space flights. One strategy piqued their interest; it involved a chemosynthetic microbe that can grow using CO2 as its sole carbon source.
Unlike photosynthetic microbes, it requires no sunlight, needing only the inherent chemical energy in hydrogen gas (H2) (which exists in great quantities on Earth) to power the chemical conversion of CO2 into building blocks that make more cells. Theoretically, NASA’s “closed loop concept” could feed astronauts for all eternity.
The NASA concept had been shelved and largely forgotten only to be rediscovered by Dr. Dyson and Dr. Reed. The researchers felt they had discovered their solution to combating global warming: developing a sustainable, alternative protein source. They founded Air Protein in 2019, focusing on alternative meat products.
Finalist: Air Protein
Type of organization: Private company
Year of establishment: 2019
Headquarters: California, USA
Founder: Lisa Dyson & John Reed
Number of staff: 25
The big idea: Helping curb global warming and feeding the planet by producing protein with edible microbes and excess CO2
Goal: Making their carbon neutral alternative meat available globally in the next ten years
A speedy growth
Air Protein’s team explains it thus: cultures – single-cell organisms – act like plants and capture CO2 and convert it into nutrients they feed on, ultimately resulting in a protein. The cultures are then mixed with more CO2, Oxygen, hydrogen and water to spark the protein’s growth process. Next, teams harvest, purify, and dry the air protein, yielding a flour with the same profile as animal protein and richer in nutrients and amino acids than soy protein.
“Livestock needs two years to go from “suckling to sirloin.” Air meat can be produced in a matter of hours, through a fermentation process similar to making beer or yogurt.”
This flour is crafted into meat analogs of chicken, beef, pork, and seafood, in various forms, using culinary ingredients and flavors. Though much work remains to achieve all sensory aspects of the real deal, Air Protein notes that their product is also suitable as an ingredient in protein-enriched pasta, cereals, beverages, and more.
As for nutritional properties, it features more protein per kg than any other meat source and is rich in vitamins, mineral, and amino acids, reports the company. The microbes used are also notable for producing vitamin B12 – an essential nutrient found in meat, eggs, dairy, fish, and algae, though not in plants found on land. As such, Air Protein could be a vegan source of vitamin B12, although its bioavailability has yet to be determined. The product is also free from hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, pesticides, and herbicides.
Climate-independent food production
Producing food by growing edible microbes in an enclosed vessel has several benefits indeed. Analyses of the product’s carbon footprint indicate that it’s at carbon negative. It requires 1 liter of water per kg of protein, 112,000 times less than beef, almost 8,000 less than legumes, and nearly 6,000 less than soy. The physical enclosure allows for precise control of the volumes of added water and nutrients while at the same time preventing water- or nutrient loss, which typically occurs when growing conventional crops. Air farming doesn’t require the environmentally hazardous fertilizers often sprayed on crops either.
“Air Protein predicts their protein will positively impact greenhouse gas emissions, land and water use, and biodiversity.”
The method also facilitates control of growth conditions – temperature being the most important one. Therefore, a well-insulated cultivation tank makes it possible to grow edible microbes in geographical locations where outside temperatures are too extreme for conventional agriculture.
As climate change continues to push extreme weather events and threaten our global, agriculture-dependent food system, “climate-independent” food production is getting more attention. Additionally, hydrogen gas can easily be produced from water via electrolysis, using any zero-emission power source.
In terms of energy consumption, Air Protein calculates its H2 production, fermentation process, and CO2 and H2 conversion into protein to be 5 to 10 times more efficient than crop plants used to produce alternative proteins. The company runs on solar panels and estimates that sourcing wind or hydroelectric power could further improve their energy efficiency.
Decoupled from arable land and therefore scalable air farms
Not affected by environmental factors, Air Protein’s air farms can operate virtually anywhere and adapt to capacity fairly quickly; crafting meat out of air is an infinitely scalable process. It significantly reduces the risks of weather- and supply chain disruptions while eliminating the strain on water and land resources that traditional agriculture requires.
Air Protein’s team expects to launch their first commercial plant in 12-18 months, upon which the start-up will expand regionally on the U.S. West Coast. They have already achieved the initial regulatory feasibility assessment and are in the process of obtaining GRAS – Generally Recognized as Safe – approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
A national expansion will follow as additional investments are secured, with multiple distribution channels, including retail and food services. Air Protein’s product will be cheaper than real meat, giving lower-income consumers increased access to highly nutritious protein.
The company believes their technology, although capital-intensive, has the potential to scale rapidly and globally, provided they can acquire funding to grow.
Some quantitative information about the process remains to be determined:
Does the process exclusively use CO2 from the air, or does it require higher concentrations? And how much H2 and CO2 are needed per kg of product?
What are the by-products of the process? Do any of them require special disposal?
Additionally, there is growing concern about highly processed food.
What would Air Protein do with the Prize sum?
Air Protein would use the Food Planet Prize money in four key areas:
To accelerate their R&D and product development efforts by obtaining equipment that would enable greater production capacity, faster testing, and ultimately, bringing their product to market faster.
To expand the Air Protein team, thus helping them achieve the above.
To drive consumer awareness.
To invest in more consumer testing and insight-gathering.