First there was animal meat. Then there was plant-based meat. Now a Berkeley company plans to sell air-based meat.

That’s right. A meat alternative, conjured out of thin air.

It’s one way that startups are searching for ways to grow foods that use less land, water and other resources as the United Nations predicts that the planet’s population will balloon to 10 billion by 2050. The plant-based meat industry is rapidly growing, and vertical farms are opening around the world. But air-based protein might be even more sustainable, said Dyson.

“The reason why we’re excited about commercialising food products with this is because of all the challenges we’re facing with arable land,” Dyson said, citing deforestation in the Amazon to make room for cattle farming. She believes Air Protein’s process uses 1,000 times less land and water than other protein sources like soybeans.

The company, Air Protein, created what its CEO Lisa Dyson believes is the first air-based meat in the world last month. But other companies are using similar methods to create protein, including Sunnyvale’s NovoNutrients and Finnish startup Solar Foods. They’re part of a nascent, futuristic food category known as microbial fermentation, according to Liz Specht, a science expert with plant-based food advocacy group the Good Food Institute.  “There’s been so little exploration of that sector so far,” she said.

The basic thing these companies do is to feed molecules in the air to microorganisms, which convert the carbon dioxide into protein. Dyson described Air Protein’s technology as a “probiotic production process” that’s similar to brewing beer or making yogurt but not quite the same as fermentation. She relies on microbes called hydrogenotrophs, which can convert carbon dioxide into protein. It comes out as a flavorless powder than can be reconstituted into familiar-looking and tasting foods.

Finding a use for carbon dioxide, a necessary byproduct of combustion at any energy facility, makes the process a “double win,” Specht said.

Compared to growing crops or raising animals, these processes are fast, said Specht. “You can see cells double in as short as 20 minutes and up to a few hours,” she said. “That’s much quicker than animal cells divide for cultivated meat or a growing season in the field.”

Dyson started Air Protein earlier this year as a protein-focused spin-off from her other company, Kiverdi, which works on other forms of carbon transformation. Originally, she was inspired by old NASA research from the 1960s that suggested hydrogenotrophs could sustain life abroad a spacecraft. She realized Earth, with its limited resources and need to recycle carbon, is kind of like a spaceship.

The air-based protein she creates looks like a flour and carries a neutral flavor, she said. She declined to elaborate on how Air Protein turns the flour into meat-like products that evoke chicken or beef. Dyson said the protein flour could also be turned into protein-enriched pastas, cereals, bars and shakes down the line. Next year she’ll announce products and plans for distribution.

Original Source: www.sfchronicle.com/