Making meat out of thin air? Impossible. But this startup does it anyway

How long does it take to make a steak? Depending on the thickness of the meat, you might give a time anywhere between two and three minutes per side for “rare,” and five to six minutes per side for “well-done.” Except that you’d be mistaken. That’s how long it takes to cook a steak. Making one takes considerably longer.

Currently, it takes a couple of years to “make” a steak. That’s the length of time it takes to rear cattle, slaughter it, and get it to your plate. During those two years, plenty of land and water is used as part of the animal rearing and grazing process, kicking out no shortage of greenhouse gases in the future. To make things more efficient, we need new technology.

That’s the idea driving Dr. Lisa Dyson, a PhD in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and chief executive of an intriguingly ambitious new startup called Air Protein. Dyson is working on a new approach to making meat that’s more conscious of the space (and other resources) that goes into making meat. Its inspiration? Well, space.

“[My cofounder] Dr. John Reed and I thought ‘what better way to think outside the box than to consider food production on board a spaceship where there is limited space and limited resources?’” Dyson told Digital Trends. “The scientists at NASA considered many ideas about how to grow food in the 60s and 70’s during the Apollo space program. We leveraged some of their ideas and developed a novel technology that is able to make meat out of elements of the air, such as CO2.”

According to Air Protein, those ideas included creating food through a closed-loop system, whereby microbes could be used to convert air exhaled by astronauts into food. Given that astronauts on board Apollo 11 ate beef and vegetables, pork with potato scallops, and Canadian bacon and apple sauce, each individually wrapped in separate packages, it seems this research was never deployed on board those early missions.

Nonetheless, the notion of using microbes to convert exhaled air into food hung around, and Air Protein claims to have found a way to make it into a marketable commodity.

Elements from the air

“We make meat in the most sustainable way, by using elements of the air,” Dyson explained. “We begin with a starter culture, similar to when one makes yogurt. We then add water, electricity, and CO2 — an element of the air we breathe — as key inputs. The output is a protein that is rich in all essential amino acids. We mix the protein with a few other natural ingredients then shape the mixture – similar to how one would shape pasta – and cook it to make a delicious animal-free meat without the footprint.”

The starter culture consists of natural, single-cell organisms. These function like photosynthesizing plants by converting carbon dioxide into nutrients. Different starter cultures yield different nutrients.

“Unlike crops, our nutrients are ready for harvest in hours instead of months and can be produced in any climate, in any season, and without the need for arable land,” Dyson said. “Our process uses a fraction of the land and water required for animal agriculture and uses CO2 as an input, making it the most sustainable way to make protein. We are focusing on making nutritious and delicious meat without the land, water, and GHG footprint of animal agriculture.”

Air Protein joins a growing market of startups seeking out new ways of disrupting the current meat industry through the development of more sustainable alternatives. Memphis Meats, for instance, is working to create lab-grown meat through its own unique methods. “[Our process involves] obtaining a small number of animal cells from high-quality livestock animals,” David Kay, senior manager of communications and operations for Memphis Meats, previously told Digital Trends. “We figure out which of those cells naturally contain the attributes we need — superior taste, texture, and the ability to efficiently self-renew — and we take those cells and re-create essential conditions that exist inside an animal’s body, but without the animal.”

Closer to Air Protein’s approach is the work of a Finnish scientists working to create protein “made from air.” They believe the results could compete with soya in price by the time the 2020s closes out. Their brand of protein is produced from soil bacteria that’s fed on hydrogen split from water using electricity. It, too, was inspired by the food-based research coming out of the space program in the 1960s.

When will you be able to taste it?

However, if the history of lab-grown meat alternatives prove anything it’s that it is one thing to come up with a clever approach; another to be able to bring the resulting foodstuff to market at a reasonable cost. Air Protein has conquered the first of these challenges. Now it’s grappling with the second.

“As you can imagine turning air into meat at a large scale takes time, and we’ve spent the time, energy and resources perfecting the science,” Dyson said. “Our area of focus is scaling up the production of air-based meat and demonstrating the versatility of our platform to make products across a variety of categories, including poultry, beef, pork, and seafood.”

Promisingly, she noted that the approach is both scalable and economical. There’s no announced date for when the finished product will make it to market. But interested parties will get a look at the company’s work perhaps a bit sooner than they might have expected.

“We’ll be showcasing how we make meat from air in March at SXSW 2020, where we’ve been honored as an Innovation Awards finalist,” Dyson said.

As NASA envisioned more than half a decade ago, Dyson thinks Air Protein’s, err, protein could be useful for future long distance space travel. But she also believes it will have a closer-to-home use case, helping to reshape the way that food is created here on Earth. Provided the company’s claims live up to their billing, it will enable people to enjoy proteinous food within a matter of hours, and without the use of any arable land.

The biggest challenge of all, of course, is convincing people by how it tastes. Air-based meat featuring nine essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals, that’s free of pesticides, herbicides, hormones and antibiotics, sounds amazing. If it can be done at scale, at a reasonable cost, that will be enough to get it in front of customers. But as to whether it can adequately replicate the experience of eating traditional meat or seafood? That’s the real multi-billion dollar question.

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