It sounds like that old joke we vegans have often gone on about becoming a breatharian after being lambasted by a pre-vegan with the whole “Plants have feelings though” argument, but it’s no joke.
Air Protein, a California based bay area Berkeley startup has been creating vegan plant-based protein out of thin air as their name suggests. Announcing on November 12th of last year that they had “created the world’s first air-based protein” using elements found in the air according to a statement from the company.
So how is it possible to make plant-based meats from the air around us? The answer lies in a special type of microbe called hydrogenotrophs. These single-celled microorganisms convert carbon dioxide into protein.
Basically the microbes do the same job as plants by converting carbon dioxide into food and they do this using less space, no sunlight and with far fewer resources than traditional plant-based agriculture requires.
Their “probiotic production process” combines the air elements (like carbon dioxide, oxygen, and nitrogen) with water and mineral nutrients to make a nutrient-rich protein, the company said in their statement.
CEO Lisa Dyson describes the process as very much like making, yogurt or beer but without the same kind of fermentation that happens in those processes, she told the San Francisco Chronicle. The exception, of course, being that unlike beer or yogurt there are no grains or gallons of milk required to create this protein.
The SF Chronicle also reported that the resulting protein-dense powder is tasteless but is easily made to look and taste like foods consumers are familiar with much like plant-based flours used to make doughs for other vegan plant-based meat products.
Air protein is not a new idea and in fact, Lisa Dyson and her partners got their idea from NASA research. The research was done in the 1960s when the government agency was trying to find efficient ways to create food for longer space missions while using limited resources.
NASA came up with an idea for a so-called “closed-loop system” that used the aforementioned microbes to convert the exhaled carbon dioxide from astronauts into food. They incorporated it into the C02 scrubbing system that gave astronauts their fresh air supply. This allowed NASA to take a waste product and turn it into a food source for the crews of long voyages like say a trip to Mars that takes around 6 months.
Experts like Dana Hunnes a senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical center in Lots Angeles have said this idea is feasible.
“Given that proteins have a large nitrogen-containing group in them and the air is over 70% nitrogen, it would make sense to me that you could siphon the nitrogen and carbon from the air to form the backbone of amino acids, which are what all proteins are made of,”
Hunnes did note however that the company didn’t present in exact detail how they are creating this “Air Protein” but that they are likely using a carbon-fixing or nitrogen-fixing bacteria “that are somehow able to produce amino acids from the molecules carbon and nitrogen floating in the air.”
Air Protein sees their companies product as a way to create a more sustainable food system that we are in desperate need of as our growing global population is expected to swell even further than the 7 billion-plus we currently sit at.
They point out that their method doesn’t require large amounts of land resources and is not dependent on the weather or other conditions in nature like insects or disease.
Another advantage the company touts is that they can make their protein in a matter of days as opposed to the many months it takes to raise crops or “livestock. A cow, for example, takes about 18 months to bring to market for “beef”. That’s just the time considerations just think about how it takes around 1,800 gallons of water to make 1 pound of “beef” and you see how valuable this technology really could be at large scale.
The idea behind air protein “could be a boon for the environment and potentially human health,” if it really is all it’s cracked up to be, Hunnes said. “I’m all for anything that protects the environment and feeds more people.”
Hunnes points out that the company has not released any numbers on the cost of producing this new protein nor have they presented any numbers showing how much water their process is using so we should tread cautiously as more comes out about this new company and process.
CEO Lisa Dyson’s Bio from the site reads:
“Dr. Dyson is the CEO of Air Protein, which is focused on feeding the world’s population with food made from the most sustainable protein, protein that is made from elements found in the air. Using a proprietary probiotic production process, Air Protein is forging the way into a new era of sustainable food production and has introduced the world’s first food from CO2.
Watch Dr. Dyson’s TED Talk about the technology here. Dr. Dyson is also the CEO of Kiverdi, which is remaking supply chains with carbon transformation.
Dr. Dyson is a scientist and entrepreneur to her core, taught to solve problems. She was raised by an entrepreneur where she saw ideas come to fruition and she thrives when she is able to use her scientific knowledge to solve problems that are good for business and good for the planet.
Lisa has spent the last decade of her career working on climate-positive technologies.
As a mission-driven entrepreneur, Dr. Dyson is passionate about challenging business leaders to adopt innovative, sustainable ways of producing.”
She certainly sounds qualified from the bio and in her TED talk we highly recommend watching she goes over more details about the process of making this air-based vegan meat and the background of it starting with NASA.
Check out her TED Talk here:
Air Protein isn’t the only company using air to make protein. A Finnish company called Solar Foods also says it’s making “food out of thin air,” using a combination of carbon dioxide, water, and renewable electricity, CNN reported earlier this year.