Jan 9, 2021 - Science

Making protein out of thin air

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A startup is working on technology that produces protein from the elements found in air.

Why it matters: "The world will struggle to feed billions more people by mid-century without clearing more land for farming or livestock. Being able to generate nutrition protein with little more than energy and air could open the door to sustainable vertical farms.

What's happening: On Thursday the startup Air Protein pulled in $32 million in a Series A fundraising round led by the corporate venture capital arm of ag giant Archer Daniels Midland.

How it works: Air Protein takes the basic elements in air — carbon dioxide, oxygen and nitrogen — and combines them with water and minerals, before using renewable energy and probiotics in fermentation vessels to yield amino acids.

  • "We end up with a flour that is rich in proteins, vitamins and minerals," says Lisa Dyson, a physicist and the founder and CEO of Air Protein.
  • Those amino acids can then be sculpted using pressure and temperature to gain the same flavor and texture as meat, she adds.

Details: Unlike conventional livestock raising — which now takes up more than a quarter of the planet's terrestrial surface — Air Protein's technology doesn't require arable land and can be "deployed anywhere in any climate," says Dyson. "This is massively scalable."

But, but, but: While other players in the alternative protein sector are already selling to consumers or at least operating pilot plants, Air Protein's technology is still in the earliest stages.

The bottom line: There's no such thing as a free lunch, but being able to make protein out of thin air would be pretty close.

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