From NASA to your table: A history of food from thin air

A fairly old idea, but a really good one, is about to hit the store shelves.

From NASA to your table: A history of food from thin air
Credit: Brian McGowan/Unsplash/mipan/Adobe Stock/Big Think
  • The idea of growing food from CO2 dates back to NASA 50 years ago.
  • Two companies are bringing high-quality, CO2-derived protein to market.
  • CO2-based foods provide an environmentally benign way of producing the protein we need to live.

The idea of making food from little more than thin air— carbon dioxide, actually—is not a new one. NASA was tinkering with the idea in the 1960s as a means of growing food on future long missions. In recent years, as we've come to understand that Earth's resources—land and rainforests chief among them—are limited, interest in the concept has been renewed, with NASA doing new research and two companies racing to market with CO2-derived food products.

The basic idea

Credit: Big Think

The basic mechanism for deriving food from CO2 involves a fairly simple closed-loop system that executes a process over and over in a cyclical manner, producing edible matter along the way. In space, astronauts produce carbon dioxide when they breathe, which is then captured by microbes, which then convert it into a carbon-rich material. The astronauts eat the material, breathe out more CO2, and on and on. On Earth, the CO2 is captured from the atmosphere.

Drawing first breath

Credit: NASA

NASA's investigation into using CO2 for food production began with a 1966 report written by R. B. Jagow and R. S. Thomas and published by Ames Research Center. The nine-chapter report was called "The Closed Life-Support System." Each chapter contained a proposal for growing food on long missions.

Chapter 8, written by J. F. Foster and J. H. Litchfield of the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, proposed a system that utilized a hydrogen-fixing bacteria, Hydrogenomonas—NASA had been experimenting with the bacteria for several years at that point—and recycled CO2 in a compact, low-power, closed-loop system. The system would be able to produce edible cell matter in way that "should then be possible to maintain continuous cultures at high efficiencies for very long periods of time."

At the time, extended missions that would benefit from such a system were off in the future.

In 2019, and with its eye toward upcoming Mars missions, NASA returned to the idea, sponsoring the CO2 Conversion Challenge, "seeking novel ways to convert carbon dioxide into useful compounds." Phase 1 of the contest invited proposals for processes that could "convert carbon dioxide into glucose in order to eventually create sugar-based fuel, food, medicines, adhesives and other products."

In May 2109, NASA announced the winners of Phase 1. The space agency concluded acceptance of Phase 2 entries on December 4, 2020.

Approaching the Finnish line

Solein "meatballs"

Credit: Solar Foods

We've written previously about Solar Foods, a company backed by the Finnish government who recently invested €4.3 million to help complete the company's €8.6 million commercialization of their nutrient-rich CO2-based protein powder, Solein. The company anticipates Solein will provide protein to some 400 million meals by 2025, and has so far developed 20 different food products from it.

In the air tonight

Another player, Air Protein, is based in California's Bay Area and is also bringing to market their own CO2 protein named after the company. The company describes it as a "nutrient-rich protein with the same amino acid profile as an animal protein and packed with crucial B vitamins, which are often deficient in a vegan diet."

The company recently secured $32 million in venture-capital funding.

Although Air Protein is actually flour—like Solein—the company is positioning Air Protein as offering "the first air-based meat," while Solein was announced first, and there's no public timetable yet for the arrival of Air Protein products on store shelves. In any event, non-animal "meats" are a hot market these days with the success of Beyond Burger and Impossible Foods cruelty-free meat substitutes.

Striking oil

Deforestation for palm oil

Credit: whitcomberd/Adobe Stock

Though Air Protein's promotional materials emphasize meat substitutes that will be derived from their flour, a TED Talk by company co-founder Lisa Dyson reveals another Air Protein product that could arguably have an even greater impact by potentially eliminating the need for palm oil and the deforestation it requires — their CO2 process can produce oils.

The company has already created a citrus-like oil that can be used for fragrances, flavoring, as a biodegradable cleaner, and "even as a jet fuel." Perhaps more excitingly, the company has made another oil that's similar to palm oil. Since palm trees are the crop most responsible for the decimation of the world's rain forests, an environmentally benign replacement for it would be a very big deal. Dyson also notes that their oils could substitute morally problematic coconut oil, whose harvesting has lately been reported to often involve the abuse of macaque monkeys.

Putting carbon dioxide to work

We know we have too much of the stuff, so finding a way of utilizing at least some CO2 to create foods and other products that reduce the need for destructive commercial practices is a solid win for humankind. Harkening back to its NASA origins, Dyson notes in her talk that Earth, too, is sort of a self-contained spaceship, albeit a big one. Finding new ways to productively reuse what it has to offer clearly benefits us all.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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