Preserving the Environment

Creating Food Out of Thin Air

March 19, 2018
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Creating Food Out of Thin Air
An old NASA formula gets an update for planet Earth.

Lisa Dyson is on a journey to revolutionize the way protein is made. “We have a lot of work to do,” she says.

By 2050, the world’s population is estimated to hit 10 billion. Food production will need to increase by 70 percent. Traditional farming won’t be able to keep up.

Dyson knows the answer. It’s literally all around us: carbon dioxide.

An odorless, colorless gas, CO2 is used to carbonate drinks, make dry ice and helps smother flames when put in fire extinguishers. It’s also a byproduct of burning fossil fuels — and a known culprit of climate change.

Producing food from thin air? Sounds too good to be true. That is, until you consider that Dyson holds three degrees in physics, including a Ph.D. from M.I.T., where she studied string theory. “My dream growing up was to become a scientist,” she says.

Several years ago, Dyson and a colleague, John Reed, began searching for technical solutions for climate change. They stumbled across NASA reports written in the 1960s and ’70s that discussed using powerful microbes to recycle carbon dioxide aboard spacecraft.

“We were fascinated by their research,” Dyson recalls. “We wondered if we could develop a similar technology that would enable us to recycle carbon dioxide into valuable products here on Earth.”

The answer is yes. Today, Dyson and Reed’s startup, Kiverdi, uses those microbes to transform carbon into bio-based products. The magic happens in special bio-reactors, similar to the giant urns used to brew beer.

This year, they’re commercializing a new process to transform CO2 into protein powder. The end product, called Planet+Protein, is packed with essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals, and contains over 50 percent more protein than many other non-animal-based proteins, like soy-based foods.

“Think of it like the flour you have in your kitchen,” says Dyson. “It can be mixed with other ingredients to make flavorful foods.” Burgers, pastas, smoothies … the possibilities are endless.

Not surprisingly, Planet+Protein has “an amazingly low environmental footprint,” Dyson says. “To produce it uses significantly less land and less water than most other proteins.”

By the time Planet+Protein is for sale at your local supermarket, Dyson’s hope is that it will be one of the most sustainable protein options up for grabs — but not the only one.

“A change is necessary and inevitable, given the increasing demand for protein and our continuously growing population,” she says. In the future, Dyson predicts we’ll see numerous products on store shelves that follow the same conscientious credo: an earth-friendly process that inevitably helps reduce greenhouse gases.

You don’t have to be a scientist to help stop climate change, Dyson adds. “If you have your own idea that you believe will have an impact, then jump in with both feet. You’ll discover there are so many people willing to help you.”

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