It was space travel that inspired scientist Lisa Dyson to create an unusual climate solution: protein made from air, which can be grown inside a tank instead of using up valuable land.
Dyson is the founder of Air Protein, a California-based startup that is harnessing cutting-edge technology to create a meat alternative called Air Meat, using just microbes, water, renewable energy and elements found in the air.
Launched in 2019, Dyson based the technology on research carried out by NASA in the 1960s, which explored ways to feed astronauts on long missions to Mars. One proposal was to make food by combining microbes with the carbon dioxide (CO2) that the astronauts were breathing out, but the idea was never realized by NASA.
“We are leveraging those initial concepts NASA had and picking them up off the shelf,” Dyson says.
Air Protein’s process is similar to yogurt or cheese fermentation. But instead of feeding sugar or milk to the microbe cultures, CO2, nitrogen and oxygen are whisked through large fermentation tanks, where the culture produces proteins within hours. These proteins are harvested, dried and made into a flour which can be used to produce a steak substitute by adding flavorings and nutrients.
Dyson’s driving force is her desire to tackle climate change. “NASA scientists always think differently and if we’re going to do something revolutionary and new about climate change, we have to think differently,” she says.
The reality of the climate crisis hit Dyson when she visited New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. “Just seeing the devastation of that event and thinking about how climate scientists have been warning us that these weather events are going to become more frequent and more intense – I wanted to be a part of the solution,” she says.
Dyson, who has a PhD in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, decided to focus on the food industry because “it produces more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector.”
The global food industry contributes around 17.3 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent emissions per year, almost 19 times the amount produced by international aviation and 35% of all human-caused emissions, according to a study by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the US.
Farming animals is responsible for 14.5% of the global carbon footprint and the production of red meat accounts for 41% of those emissions, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.
With the global population predicted to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, meat consumption is expected to increase significantly, and feeding that many people using conventional methods will require vast swathes of land.
“Where are we going to get all the arable land from?” says Dyson. “How do we make all that food without increasing greenhouse gases, and essentially overheating the planet more and more?”
Air Protein has created “a new type of agriculture and a new way of growing food that doesn’t require arable land,” Dyson says.
The company says it has not yet published the results of its lifecycle assessment, but claims it doesn’t add any emissions to the atmosphere. It produces oxygen and nitrogen from air using renewable energy, and sources CO2 from industrial suppliers, with plans to eventually use direct air capture to draw CO2 down from the atmosphere.
Making meat substitutes from biomass fermentation isn’t new – Quorn, derived from a fungus, also uses fermentation and was launched in the 1980s. Other startups, such as Finland’s Solar Foods, have been developing ways to fuel a similar process to Air Protein’s using air and renewable energy.
Proteins produced using biomass fermentation are “incredibly nutritious, rich in fiber as well as protein, and require little further processing,” says Robert Lawson, managing partner at Food Strategy Associates, a consultancy for the food industry.
“Their applications aren’t limited to meat alternatives – they could be turned into nutritious protein shakes or into ice creams,” he says.
One of the biggest challenges companies such as Air Protein face is competing with the traditional meat industry, which is heavily subsidized, Lawson says.
“To reach pricing parity with meat will require scaling up of infrastructure – so maybe when biomass fermentation is 10-20 times the scale it is today there will be more scale economies,” he says.
Companies that use this new technology also face “the challenge of explaining to consumers what fermented proteins are and why they might want to eat them,” says Lawson.
Air Protein raised $32 million last year and will announce when it plans to start selling products in the US next year. It says it is “near the end of the regulatory requirements process” and has “checked off all of the right boxes so far.” Air Protein didn’t give an indication of the retail price, but Dyson said that production costs will fall as “renewable energy becomes more and more abundant.”
The company will be entering the market at a time when the plant-based meat industry is facing difficulties in the United States. Shares of Beyond Meat are down more than 75% this year, and a recent report from Deloitte noted that sales of meat substitutes were “stagnating,” with consumers struggling with high inflation and questioning the assumed benefits of the products.
Air Protein is also working on creating scallop protein, but its main focus is the meat industry. “We are focusing on that first, but [the technology] is very flexible to tap into many different food groups, including cheese and fish,” says Dyson.
“We need to produce food in a way that isn’t suffocating the planet,” she says. “We don’t have a choice. I think there’s a bright future when we bring innovation to the equation and change how our food is made.”