This startup is trying to make juicy steaks out of thin air
Lisa Dyson and John Reed, a former physicist and the latter a materials scientist, are working together at the Department of Energy’s Berkeley Laboratory and have a common goal: They want to help limit climate change and they know one way to do that is to look at the food on our plates. Agriculture is responsible for a quarter of annual greenhouse gas emissions – more than the entire transportation sector – and the meat industry generates the most emissions. Despite that, people continue to eat meat: Global meat consumption is at 350 million tons a year (about 386 million tons) and growing. By 2050, the global population is estimated to grow to 10 billion, which means we need to find alternative proteins to feed all those extra people.
But the pair weren’t completely settled on how to do this until one day they came across some forgotten NASA research from the 1960s. A document from 1967 explored ways to feed astronauts during a long spacewalk where there would be very few resources. One of the ideas is to combine bacteria with the carbon dioxide that astronauts are exhaling to create food. Since the space program never reached Mars, this idea never came to fruition. Dyson and Reed decided to take this idea and implement it. “We pick up where they left off,” says Dyson. In 2008, this decades-old idea inspired Dyson and Reid to found Kiverdi, a company that uses recycled carbon dioxide to create products such as bacteria-based alternatives to palm oil. and citrus oils.
In 2019, they spun off Air Protein, a California-based startup that aims to make meat out of thin air. That’s where Air Protein comes in. The company is taking carbon dioxide – the toxic greenhouse gas that warms our planet – and turning it into a juicy steak or an exquisite salmon fillet. The process is similar to how yogurt is made, based on live cultures. The air protein cultured the hydrogenotrophic bacteria inside the fermentation tanks and supplied them with a mixture of carbon dioxide, oxygen, minerals, water and nitrogen. The end result is a rich protein powder, whose amino acid composition is similar to that of meat protein. But how does the company turn that into a tender chicken breast? “We just added cooking techniques to give you the different textures you’re looking for,” says Dyson.
The technology’s climate-saving potential is twofold. First, the process itself is carbon-negative, as it uses carbon dioxide to make proteins, and Air Protein’s ultimate aim is to draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through direct air-gathering plants. Second, the process uses 1.5 million times less land than beef and 15,000 times less water than beef.
The most important part is making the process cost-competitive with the meat industry, as well as with other meat alternatives, like soy and mycoprotein. Dyson points out that the company’s technology requires no land, uses minimal resources, and relies on renewable energy, which is getting cheaper. “Our technology will allow us to not only save costs in the first place, but also have a cost structure that continues to decrease.” And the startup caught the attention of sponsors: In early 2021, it raised funds 30 million dollars in funding from investors including ADM Ventures, Barclays and GV. “We are trying to redefine the way meat is produced,” says Dyson. “I am delighted to be a part of that movement.”
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