Commodities such as oil and sugar have long been used in our everyday lives, particularly when it comes to making food and drinks. However, a resource that is free, available in abundance and good for the human body, that has been around us forever has been overlooked – Air! Whilst the benefits of using the air around us to generate energy, such as wind power has been recognised and explored, innovative companies are now discovering how we can use this invaluable resource in soft drinks and meat proteins.
This idea occurred to Lisa Dyson, when she was looking into research NASA had conducted in the 1960s, which looked into how food could be made for its astronauts out of carbon dioxide, when they were on missions in space. This initial research was not developed further, back in the 60s, however, Dyson’s discovery of NASA’s findings could not have come at a better time, as humans think about how to source meat more sustainably and new methods of how to produce food is at the front of discussions on environmental protection. Dyson’s work has the potential to do exactly this. Stumbling upon this research, Dyson founded the company Kiverdi, and developed a technology that is able to create protein using air and in late 2019, Dyson launched Air Protein, which will utilise this method to create meat made out of air.
Making food out of air sounds like a futuristic idea, which is ahead of its time. However, this concept is not as difficult to grasp as one might think. As explained by Dyson in her TED talk, what the scientists at NASA discovered was that they could create a “close looped carbon cycle” where astronauts would breathe out CO2, which would be captured by microbes (called hydrogenotrophs) and converted into carbon rich crops, which the astronauts would then eat. They would then exhale the carbon into the air in the form of CO2. This would be captured by the microbes to create a crop, which would then again be exhaled out as CO2 by the astronauts. The idea was that CO2 would be recycled by the astronauts when on space missions, due to the lack of carbon available on space. Along with her colleague, Dr John Reed, Dyson realised that carbon could be recycled on Earth and that this concept could be employed to create food out of CO2. Dyson found that they could make many products using these microbes, such as, oil, similar to citrus oil and palm oil, which is used in a wide range of consumer goods. This is beneficial for the planet and for businesses, who must rapidly address how to do things in a more sustainable way. Conventional farming and agricultural practices require large amounts of land to cultivate crops and farming can have a devastating impact on the land. The process at Air Protein uses fermentation vessels that can convert gases into what is similar to a protein rich flour. The facilities Dyson’s company uses to create food are similar to that of breweries. Furthermore, producing protein made from air is not dependent on any weather conditions, such as rain or sunshine, which means that more food can be produced outside of the traditional cultivation cycles. This presents a viable solution to problems of food shortage, as we figure out how to provide food for the 10 billion people on our planet, with an estimate of needing to increase food production by 70%. Named as a 2020 Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum, Air Protein has secured $32m in its Series A funding round, led by ADM Ventures, Barclays and GV. This will provide the resources needed for the company to set up an innovation R&D lab, continue developing new products and look towards commercialising air protein, so that it steadily becomes a staple in consumer diets.
Using air to replace conventional ingredients goes beyond food. In 2010, Unilever published a paper that found using air bubbles could be used to reduce the content of salt and sugar found in soft drinks. Adding air bubbles to a water based gel allows for a similar taste as provided by salt and sugar, but without the added calories. Maintaining taste in soft drinks is key. Johanneke Busch and researchers from the Journal of Food and Science looked into using ‘inert fillers’ to ensure that the taste which many people love in soft drinks remains the same, whilst reducing salt and sugar content. Using air bubbles can reduce fat content by up to 50%. The direction in which the food and drink industry is moving, with companies such as Air Protein looks positive and there is no shortage of demand for healthier alternatives, produced in ways that are friendlier for the environment and our bodies.
Air can also be used to generate fuel for cars, in a way which reduces the impact of gases on the environment, by combining carbon dioxide and water into a fuel called methanol. This then generates electricity from temperature changes in the atmosphere. Methanol can also be converted into synthetic gasoline, which is a viable replacement for oil. Generally, creating methanol from carbon dioxide requires high temperatures, but a group of Chinese researchers discovered a way to do this using nanoplates that can generate electricity using the right temperature changes. Although this process will still give off greenhouse gases, it is a step in the right direction and experimenting with how air can be used to minimise the impact of pollution caused on our environment, is an exciting area of development.
Using air to produce food products, drinks and reducing the polluting effects of driving cars, has the potential to be a game changer in helping protect people’s health and wellbeing whilst creating a positive impact on the environment.