By Steve Gorman
(Reuters) – In the 2015 sci-fi film “The Martian,” Matt Damon plays an astronaut who survives on a diet of potatoes grown in human feces while marooned on the Red Planet.
Now, a New York company that makes carbon-negative aviation fuel is taking the menu of interplanetary cuisine in a very different direction. His innovation placed him in the final of a competition sponsored by NASA to encourage the development of next-generation technologies to meet the dietary needs of astronauts.
The closely held Air Company of Brooklyn has developed a way to recycle the carbon dioxide exhaled by astronauts in flight to grow yeast-based nutrients for protein shakes designed to feed crews on long missions. duration in deep space.
“It’s definitely more nutritious than Tang,” said co-founder and chief technology officer Stafford Sheehan, referring to the powdered drink popularized in 1962 by John Glenn when he became the first American to orbit Earth.
Sheehan, who holds a doctorate in physical chemistry from Yale University, said he originally developed his carbon conversion technology as a way to produce high-purity alcohols for jet fuel, perfume and vodka.
The NASA-sponsored Deep Space Food Challenge prompted Sheehan to modify his invention to produce edible proteins, carbohydrates and fats from the same system.
THE TASTE OF … SEITAN
The resulting single-cell protein shake featured in the NASA competition has the consistency of a whey protein shake, Sheehan said. Sheehan likened its flavor to that of seitan, a tofu-like food made from wheat gluten that originated in East Asian cuisine and is embraced by vegetarians as a meat substitute.
“And you get this sweet, almost malty flavor,” Sheehan said in an interview.
Besides protein shakes, the same process can be used to create higher carbohydrate substitutes for breads, pastas, and tortillas. In the interest of culinary variety, Sheehan said he sees his smoothie being supplemented on mission with other sustainably produced edibles.
The company’s patented AIRMADE technology was one of eight winners announced by NASA this month in the second phase of its food competition, with $750,000 in prizes. A final round of the contest is approaching.
Other winners include: a bioregeneration system from a Florida lab to raise fresh vegetables, fungi, and even insect larvae to use as micronutrients; an artificial photosynthesis process developed in California to create herbal and fungal ingredients; and a Finnish gas fermentation technology to produce single-cell proteins.
Up to $1.5 million in prizes will be divided among the eventual final winners of the contest.
While few if any are likely to earn a spot in the Michelin Guide to Food, they represent a big leap forward from Tang and the freeze-dried snacks eaten by astronauts in the early days of space travel.
The new food-growing programs are also more appetizing and promise to be far more nutritious than Matt Damon’s fictional poo-fertilized potatoes in “The Martian.”
“It was taking an idea to the extreme for a Hollywood movie,” said Ralph Fritsche, head of space crop production at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, adding that human waste alone “isn’t the complete source of nutrients plants need to grow and thrive.” .”
Keeping astronauts well-fed for long periods of time within the limited, zero-gravity confines of spacecraft in low Earth orbit has long posed a challenge for NASA. For the past two decades, crews aboard the International Space Station have lived primarily on meals packed with fresh produce delivered on regular resupply missions.
ISS teams have also experimented with growing a number of vegetables on orbit, including lettuce, cabbage, kale and chili peppers, according to NASA.
But the imperative for self-sustaining, low-waste food production requiring minimal resources has become more pronounced as NASA aims for astronauts’ return to the moon and eventual human exploration of Mars and beyond.
Advances in space food production also have direct applications for feeding Earth’s ever-growing population at a time when climate change is making food scarcer and harder to produce, Fritsche said.
“Controlled-environment farming, the first modules we’re deploying on the moon, will bear some similarity to the vertical farms we’ll have here on Earth,” Fritsche said.
Sheehan’s system begins by taking carbon dioxide extracted from the air the astronauts breathe and mixing it with hydrogen gas extracted from water by electrolysis. The resulting mixture of alcohol and water is then introduced to a small amount of yeast to develop a renewable supply of single-cell proteins and other nutrients.
Essentially, Sheehan said, carbon dioxide and hydrogen form an alcoholic raw material for yeast, “and yeast is food for humans.”
“We’re not reinventing products,” Sheehan said, “we’re just making them more sustainably.”
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Will Dunham)