In the 1960s, NASA scientists were researching many aspects of space travel for humans.
Some of the products of that research were seen by the world, such as the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. Others, like how to make food for astronauts out of carbon dioxide, were shelved.
But decades later, Lisa Dyson picked up where those scientists left off. A former strategy consultant with a doctorate in physics, she became interested in how to create protein in a more sustainable way and came upon the old research. She worked on the concept through Kiverdi, a company she founded, which came up with technology to develop protein from air.
Last month, Dyson announced the spinoff of a food company utilizing this technology, Air Protein. The firm, which is working on meat alternative products, expects to make an announcement about when and how they will come to market next year, she told Food Dive.
Dyson said people are becoming more aware of both the ecological impact meat production has on the planet, as well as the pressing need to better produce proteins to feed a growing population.
"This is a great opportunity to introduce an alternative that is super sustainable, significantly more sustainable than any land-based production," Dyson said. "You don't need any arable land. You can keep your habitat untouched. You could scale vertically, you know, [producing food] rain or shine, day or night. In the production itself, you can produce the same amount of protein from a soy farm the size of Texas by just having an Air Protein farm the size of Walt Disney World."
Dyson hopes the new technology — another way to make sustainable protein — will revolutionize both the food business and the longevity of the environment.
How does it work?
While there is no way to get away from the deep science behind this concept, making edible protein from air sounds like science fiction.
NASA's report detailing how the technology works was published in 1967 as part of a more comprehensive study about how to support human life during a space mission longer than a year. Basically, they looked at hydrogenotrophs — common microbes, some of which actually live in the human gut — that can be used to turn carbon dioxide into a physical protein. NASA looked at harnessing these microbes to convert the carbon dioxide that astronauts would exhale into something they could eat.
Dyson, who gave a TED talk in 2016 about how this technology could work, has taken this research to the next level at her companies. They have developed fermentation vessels that can rapidly and efficiently convert gases to what looks like a protein-rich flour. She said facilities to do this are similar to breweries.
She didn't say where Air Protein's labs are located or how much equipment it has, but Kiverdi's main lab is in Pleasanton, California. Kiverdi has partnerships with other labs, and Dyson said there are several locations that will make Air Protein in the future.
The product made by these fermentation vessels is fairly versatile and has a neutral flavor, Dyson said. While it contains good nutritional credentials — it has twice the protein of soy, all essential amino acids and B vitamins — it can be used in many different ways. The process can help make meat analogs, pasta, cereals, shakes and protein bars, she told Food Dive.
But considering the vast environmental impact of meat and the protein needs of the human race, Dyson said meat analogs are the place to start — even though the field is somewhat crowded. The company sent out pictures of a chicken substitute made from Air Protein with its press release. Dyson said they are still working on perfecting it. Air Protein is the only company with this technology.
"These are using spices and different types and ways of techniques of taking the flour, and enriching it, and doing different things so that you can get the right texture and flavor," She said.
Coming to a plate near you
Air Protein is in development on many different plains, Dyson said.
She said there will be products in development under the Air Protein brand name, and she hopes to make an announcement about them next year. Meanwhile, Dyson said she is in discussion with some companies to form product partnerships, perhaps using Air Protein as an ingredient. She did not say what kinds of products those might be, but hoped to have announcements about those next year as well.
"We'll make many different types of products, and those products will have different groups of consumers that are excited about them," Dyson said. "And that's the benefit of what we're doing, is that we're not limited by one category."
"This is a great opportunity to introduce an alternative that is super sustainable, significantly more sustainable than any land-based production. You don't need any arable land. You can keep your habitat untouched. You could scale vertically, you know, [producing food] rain or shine, day or night."
CEO, Air Protein
Dyson said she expects consumers to get excited — and intrigued — by Air Protein. Its target audience is any consumer, she said. The prospect of an ultra-sustainable and nutritious ingredient will make consumers want to try it, especially at a time when substitutes for animal-based products are the biggest trend in food.
Some of the NASA scientists who started the research that became both Kiverdi and Air Protein have been excited by Dyson's work, she said. Dyson has been able to blend her knowledge with their work and make air-based food a reality. And Dyson said she thinks this — coupled with other sustainable practices like regenerative agriculture — can be part of the solution to problems the world faces today.
"There's a range of things that need to come into play with our current food production processes becoming more efficient, becoming more sustainable," she said. "There's so many different things that we need to implement to create a more nutritious soil, healthy soil that can continue to produce crops over the ages. And produce food without the need for soil, without the need for arable land. ... I think that we need to see a plethora of ideas becoming reality."