DARPA’s Cornucopia: food from air, water, and electricity

future food

The future of food? DARPA teams work to create nourishing and tasty meals from thin air

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has selected teams to develop new, tasty food from air, water, and electricity.

The Cornucopia program aims to create a range of microbial-based foods that contain all four macronutrients required by humans – protein, carbohydrates, fat, and dietary fiber – in ratios that meet the Military Dietary Reference Intake (MDRI) daily requirements for complete nutrition.

Cornucopia’s system uses electricity to separate water into usable hydrogen and oxygen, and harvests nitrogen and carbon from the air. The goal is to create food in multiple formats, such as shakes, bars, gels, and jerky, that meet military nutritional standards and palatability requirements while minimizing inputs, handling, and footprint.

Research approaches

The teams selected to develop this new food are diverse, with 13 distinct approaches to carbon and nitrogen fixation, 12 distinct microbial and algal species, 39 microbial-origin flavors, and 18 food-processing approaches.

DARPA selected four research approaches to meet the challenges of Cornucopia:

  • The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, teamed with North Carolina State University, Johns Hopkins University, and Meridian Biotech, seeks to use tailored organisms to produce a rich glucose and ammonium feedstock from air, water, and electricity. This feedstock will be consumed by modified Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) organisms that will produce a broad range of outputs resulting in downstream control over nutritional content and optimal tailorability of food products.
  • SRI International, Kiverdi, Air Protein, and Nitricity, aim to develop an innovative integrated process utilizing high-protein oxyhydrogen cultures and high-carbohydrate microalgae to produce a nutritionally-complete foodstuff in a variety of flavors. These bioprocesses will be coupled with a novel plasma-based nitrogen pulled from air, captured carbon dioxide from generator exhaust, and hydrogen and oxygen from electrolysis of water to enable the production of food in a resource-scarce environment.
  • University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign seeks to develop an integrated platform that harnesses electrochemical and plasma technologies to fix carbon dioxide and nitrogen into organic substrates which are subsequently fed to specialized GRAS microbes for the production of food tailorable for the ratios of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and fiber. This system is designed to create no waste, increase process efficiency, and reduce power requirements with a portable footprint.
  • Harvard Medical School seeks to establish a strain of bacteria suitable for rapid and scalable production of organic matter and feedstocks from air and electrochemical processes. The team will use a combination of bioengineering and evolutionary approaches to evolve the bacteria for rapid growth on nitrogen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen and methanol.

Military and disaster relief

If successful, this program could have far-reaching implications for the military, providing troops with a transportable system that can produce appetizing food on demand in remote locations, obviating the need for costly and brittle food supply chains.

The program’s goal is to produce a system that can provide complete nutritional requirements for a small military combat unit deployed in an austere environment for 45 days, with a system that fits on a Humvee. In addition, the program aims to feed 100 civilians for 21 days using a system of four boxes that fit inside a standard 20-foot shipping container.

Nicole Favreau Farhadi, CFD senior research chemist, says that the Combat Feeding Division (CFD) is excited to be the transition partner to the Cornucopia program’s technology targeted for use in the contested environment, where resources, manpower, and space are limited.

By using air, water, and electricity, these teams are exploring new ways to create food that is both nutritious and delicious. Whether the program’s successes are used for military purposes or to aid in disaster relief, this is a program worth watching.

Title photo credit: Solar Foods


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