Most plant-based meat, such as the Impossible Burger or the Beyond Burger, uses protein made from soy or peas. The newest meat alternative uses protein made from air instead, in a process that transforms CO2 into an ingredient with the same nutritional profile as the protein you find in animals.
Air Protein, a Bay Area-based startup, unveiled the first prototypes of “air-based” meat today. The technology behind it comes from an idea first explored by NASA in the 1960s, when scientists trying to figure out how to feed astronauts in space discovered that it was possible to use microorganisms to convert CO2—breathed out by astronauts—into food. Using a similar process on Earth, inside fermentation tanks, could help radically improve the environmental footprint of food.
The company calls its technology a probiotic production process, similar to making yogurt. Inside a fermentor, naturally occurring microbes consume CO2 and a secret blend of “mineral nutrients” to produce an ingredient that is 80% protein. Unlike soy or other plant protein, it’s a “complete protein,” with the same amino acid profile as protein in beef or chicken. It also has vitamins such as B12 that aren’t typically found in vegan food. Unlike some animal protein, it doesn’t have any antibiotics and hormones. And the process runs on renewable energy.
Eventually, the CO2 used in the process may come from direct-air-capture plants that have been designed to fight climate change by pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. “We believe that as we scale production, as direct-air-capture facilities become more and more available, that this is a perfect opportunity to use those direct-air-capture facilities to go directly into food,” says Dyson.
A quarter of the world’s land is currently used to graze livestock; a third of global farmland is used to grow crops to feed livestock. As the demand for meat grows, farmers and ranchers push farther into the Amazon rainforest. By 2050, people may be eating 68% more animal-based protein than they did in 2010. But if protein were grown in brewery-like production plants, it would dramatically shrink the resources needed to produce it.
“One of the things that we can see happening is the Amazon right now is on fire,” says Lisa Dyson, Air Protein’s CEO. “And one of the reasons why it’s on fire is for food production, whether it’s cattle grazing or to grow crops, in some cases to feed that cattle. We need arable land. And so one of the things that we solve by making food at Air Protein is making food that requires essentially no arable land.” It has the same advantage over a crop such as soy, which also uses large amounts of land and water. “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,” she says.
Air Protein spun off from Kiverdi, a company that is using similar processes to turn CO2 into supply-chain replacements for plastics and ingredients such as palm oil. The team spent years developing the protein and then developed recipes for the prototype foods, which combine the air-based protein powder with other ingredients. The protein flour itself has a neutral flavor. It can be used in a variety of foods—not just meat-free meats, but also as a supplement for cereal or in protein bars or shakes. The company is currently exploring “the right first food to bring to market,” Dyson says, and plans to make announcements about the product line next year.
As the world’s population swells to 9.7 billion people by 2050, and potentially 11 billion by the end of the century—as climate change simultaneously makes it more difficult to produce food with traditional agriculture—the technology could be one way to help fill the gap. Other companies are working on similar processes, including Solar Foods, a Finland-based startup that plans to begin selling foods made from CO2 by 2021. (Novonutrients, another startup, turns CO2 into fish feed for fish farms, reducing pressure on the smaller fish in the ocean that are currently used for feed.)
Dyson plans to scale the company globally. “I think the potential is significant,” she says. “And I think it’s required. It’s [necessary] to go from land-based production to air-based production as the population increases.”