Conjuring protein from thin air

It sounds like science fiction, but it’s true: scientists have worked out how to make protein from air – with the help of teeny, microscopic bacteria called hydrogenotrophs.

The protein is highly nutritious, free from pesticides or herbicides and sustainable – a welcome solution for feeding a growing population without destructive tree lopping and land clearing.

Inspired by NASA

The founder of “Air Protein” in the US, Lisa Dyson, was inspired by NASA research in the 1960s that investigated how to convert the carbon dioxide breathed out by astronauts into food.

The technology was never commercialised, but Dyson and co-founder John Reed saw the potential, and the imperative considering our over-encumbered planet with dwindling resources.

The hydrogenotrophs – “nature’s supercharged carbon recyclers” – feed on CO2 and convert it into food with the help of hydrogen from water, synthesising the gas into cellular material.

Kiverdi likens it to age-old traditions that use fermentation to make yoghurt, beer and sauerkraut. “Basically you have different microorganisms – use different inputs and you get different outputs,” she explains.

A Finnish company, “Solar Foods”, has also cottoned on, producing protein they call “Solein” in a lab outside Helsinki.

Making the air protein requires a bioreactor that feeds the microbes with renewable energy or biomass, creating within hours what it can take months for plants to do, independently from climatic conditions and seasons.

Compared to soybeans, Dyson estimates the microbes can produce 10,000 times more food per land area using 2,000 times less water.

And the protein content – with a full complement of amino acids – is higher, producing 70-80% compared to 30-50%. It also contains vitamin B12, making it an ideal vegan food source.

From bacteria to market, and beyond

The flavourless end product looks like a powder, which can be used as a base for making nutritious protein shakes, pasta, cereals, snacks and “meatless meat” burgers.

While Solein is still in the pilot stage, aiming to open a demonstrator plant in 2022, Dyson’s team is currently working on recipe development and a taste profile, planning to announce its products this year.

Meanwhile, other creative solutions for nutritious, environmentally friendly protein includes insects – and you don’t have to eat them whole (although some people do); you can eat nutritious cricket protein in the form of powder or energy bars.

Other more palatable alternatives include legumes, quinoa, nuts and hemp.

These are all viable options for aged care centres committed to sustainability while helping residents meet their much needed protein requirements.


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