Spinoff is NASA's annual publication featuring successfully commercialized NASA technology. This commercialization has contributed to the development of products and services in the fields of health and medicine, consumer goods, transportation, public safety, computer technology, and environmental resources.

NASA has many researchers focused on the carbon cycle on Earth and how it contributes to climate change. NASA has also spent plenty of time delving into what to do with excess carbon in the closed environment of a spacecraft. Now, thanks to an innovative startup, that life support research could provide part of the solution to Earth's climate problems.

As far back as the 1960s, NASA was envisioning missions deeper into space. And for just as long, it has known it needed life support systems that minimize the expendable materials carried in the spacecraft. Among other challenges, any life support system needed to make good use of the waste products astronauts would produce. Metabolic wastes — mainly evaporative water loss, urine, utility water, expired carbon dioxide, and feces — amount to 10 to 14 pounds per astronaut per day. For a 10-man, three-year mission, this amounts to more than 100,000 pounds without considering the weight of containers.

A 1966 report published by NASA's Ames Research Center studied various options for and challenges in taking waste products and turning them into breathable air, clean water, and food. One of the most promising, both for its high efficiency in recycling carbon dioxide (CO2) into usable byproducts and for its low power and space requirements, relied on hydrogen-fixing bacteria, focusing particular study on a genus of bacteria called hydro-genomonas. Unlike algal and other plant systems that require light for photosynthesis, the bacteria could grow in the dark. That, along with its higher use of CO2 than algal systems, meant it was up to 15 times more efficient overall.

Although NASA has yet to send any astronauts on years-long missions without resupply, the work NASA did to advance life support systems has inspired entrepreneurs on Earth, which is ultimately a closed system where accumulated CO2 is a growing problem.

Kiverdi, after studying research from NASA, developed a process using microorganisms to capture carbon dioxide and create useful oils and proteins. These by-products can reduce excess CO2 in the atmosphere while also decreasing the environmental impact of producing ingredients like palm oil, a leading cause of deforestation.

It was with this in mind that Lisa Dyson and John Reed, cofounders of San Francisco-based Kiverdi, came across the NASA research on life support in 2008. “We were very interested in developing technical solutions that would help us combat climate change,” Dyson said and “we thought the idea to use microbes that grow in the dark on carbon dioxide, with higher efficiency and using minimal space, was a great idea.” Kiverdi relies on microorganisms to convert CO2, along with other simple mineral nutrients and gases, into raw materials for everyday products such as food, clothes, personal care items, industrial goods, and biofuels.

Basically, they mix the CO2 and other ingredients into a large vat, where the gases are consumed by microorganisms, which grow and produce proteins and oils. “You can think about the process as being similar to brewing beer but instead of making alcohol with yeast and sugar, we are brewing oils and proteins with carbon dioxide, water, and in some cases, renewable energy,” Dyson explained. The proteins and oils can be used in a variety of industries, from feed for fish farms to a substitute for palm oil in anything from soap to ice cream.

Currently, Kiverdi's products include a high-protein, high-nutrient flour and PALM+, a sustainably produced palm oil alternative but the company has plans to increase its offerings based on where it sees a need. The company has won grants and funding to further work on its processes to generate hydrocarbons with bacteria.

With the world population set to reach 10 billion by around 2050, current methods of growing food are likely to be insufficient and the “green revolution” that has enabled agriculture to scale up so much in recent decades is reaching its limits. Much like the NASA life support studies concluded 50 years ago, “we need alternatives that require less land and water while still enabling us to create crops that feed people and power industry,” said Dyson.

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Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the December, 2019 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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