Making Food Out of Thin Air

Apr 05 2018


By 2050, our world’s population is expected to grow to 10 billion people.

With that amount of growth, we will need to almost double food production in order to keep everyone fed—and using current methods, that amount of production would emit an enormous quantity of greenhouse gases, further adding to the issue of climate change.

With this challenge in mind, three semifinalist teams competing in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE are working to create technologies that recycle carbon emissions into resources we desperately need.

Team Protein Power is one such team. Using technology originally developed by NASA to recycle carbon on a spacecraft, they found a way to produce oils and protein from CO2 and microbes in a way that is fast, energy-efficient, and commercially viable.

“Microbes are used to make yogurt, to make beer, to make cheese, and we are taking it to the next level,” team member Lisa Dyson said. “We are taking it one step further by making protein.”

The team understands that finding ways to sustain life on Earth is vital, and by creating a technology that both addresses climate change and produces scalable, nutritious food, Protein Power has created something that can monumentally improve our future.

In Toronto, Pond Technologies is also working to bring carbon conversion into the nutrition space. Their technology uses the direct, untreated exhaust from industrial processes and proprietary lighting systems to grow algae superfoods.

Algae contains essential fatty acids, essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals that are essential to human nutrition. One algae, spirulina, is widely recognized as one of the most nutrient-dense foods on earth. As Pond’s website notes, the United Nations and the World Health Organization have both considered spirulina to be a potential solution to global malnutrition in the face of our rising population.

On top of finding a solution for the population, the team also notes the benefit their algae will have on reducing climate change.

“If Pond grew enough algae using the stack gas from industrial plants,” they said, “we could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 40%, without impacting industrial output.”

If you are one of the millions of people who enjoys an occasional drink, Team Catalyst is making something you definitely want to check out—their technology uses a process that turns air, water, and electricity into drinkable spirits.

“We’re trying to make a man-made process that does the same chemistry that plants do,” said team leader Stafford Sheehan. This means rearranging the atoms in water and CO2 to make ethanol and oxygen.

The ethanol can then be used in things like gasoline, but Catalyst is building their business around making CO2-derived spirits. And to prove it can be done—and can be done safely—Catalyst also happens to be the first company to obtain a distiller permit from the FDA for non-fermented alcohol, making this team a clear leader in the future of sustainable food and beverage.

Semifinalist team Dimensional Energy took a different approach with their technology. Instead of converting CO2 into something edible, they thought about the process of how plants use sunlight and water to create their own food, eventually finding a way to replicate this process through artificial photosynthesis.

“Our technology makes it possible to convert waste CO2 into high-value products with the renewable energy of the sun,” said the team’s leader, Jason Salfi. “We’d like to see sunlight as a powering agent in the catalysis of carbon dioxide.”

The range of products they are able to create through artificial photosynthesis are endless, and can ultimately change the way we store energy.

Algae, photosynthesis, protein, alcohol....these semifinalist teams are leading an era of innovation in which technology can give us the resources we need from the earth. And as we witness the adoption of their technologies into our world, 10 billion people will gain hope for a sustainable future.