SIU’s research team aims to take food replication from science fiction to reality


NASA has selected a research team from Southern Illinois University Carbondale to work on a machine that would use microbial processes and recycled carbon to provide tasty and nutritious food for astronauts on future deep space trips. The team, from left to right, includes Poopalasingam Sivakumar, Gayan L. Aruma Baduge, Ken Anderson, Matt McCarroll, Lahiru Jayakody and Scott D. Hamilton-Brehm. (Photo by Russell Bailey)

November 02, 2021

SIU’s research team aims to take food replication from science fiction to reality

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. – Sci-fi fans will undoubtedly remember scenes from their favorite shows in which the characters press a few buttons before their favorite gourmet meal comes out of a machine, as if it came from a four star restaurant. It might not work quite like that, but a research team at Southern Illinois University Carbondale is working on a machine to provide tasty and nutritious food for astronauts on future deep space trips, using microbial processes and recycled carbon.

NASA recently selected the SIU team’s µBites (pronounced “micro-bite”) design as one of 18 promising models nationwide. The SIU team, led by Lahiru Jayakody, assistant professor of microbiology, will receive $ 25,000 to continue its phase two design for NASA’s Deep Space Food Challenge. The competition, which saw teams design new food technologies to solve astronauts’ feeding problems on long journeys, began in January.

The competition focused researchers on the challenges of deep space exploration, with its need to create nourishing, safe and palatable foods with minimal resources and minimal waste. But Jayakody sees a ready application for such technology on the spacecraft known as Earth.

“We need to reinvent the food production system to ensure food security,” Jayakody said. “This is an urgent need for future humanity and, ideally, we need a system capable of producing food in extreme environments using untapped carbon in disaster-affected areas and regions with low levels. resources. There is no doubt that microbial-based food production is one of the best solutions. “

NASA Television, along with the NASA app and the agency’s website, are planning a show on the Deep Space Food Challenge scheduled for November 9 at 10 a.m.

Let’s eat

There’s an old joke about the sausage factory, but in this case, we’ll go ahead and see how µBites would work if they ever set out with astronauts to distant places like Mars or beyond. Because it is a kind of loop, we join the process controlled by artificial intelligence underway …

You start with only the best quality biomass and / or plastic waste such as single-use plastic containers which become the resource for making food. After crushing these ingredients into a uniform suspension, they are then sent to a reactor using Oxidative Hydrothermal Dissolution (OHD) technology, a process pioneered by SIU Professor Ken Anderson that uses water, heat, pressure and oxygen to break down and transform biomass into different types of precursors or in this case, liquid carbon. This step makes it accessible to hungry microbes, like yeast, which will perform the next step.

The liquid carbon is then pumped into a bioreactor bag, where it encounters engineered microbes that further process the suspension and create food ingredients. As much water as possible is collected for further processing as the slurry proceeds to the next stage: final preparation to the desired consistency, ranging from semi-solid to liquid. It is then mixed with dried spices or supplements to achieve the highly customizable end result.

Push button food

That’s where the sci-fi push-button food machine comes in. At this point, a 3D food printer will shape and “print” the final food product into an aesthetic item before serving it to the starving star traveler.

“Our design was created to feed four crew members during a three-year mission to Mars,” Jayakody said. “The system uses less energy and water to generate delicious, nutritious food at a rapid rate.”

Arouse his interest

Jayakody has always been interested in the potential of microbial food processes, especially the handy little insect known as yeast. The SIU, home to the Fermentation Science Institute (FSI), was one of the main reasons he wanted to work for the university.

“Since my undergraduate research in Sri Lanka, I have been working with yeast and I really love this organism,” Jayakody said. “I realized that FSI is a great place for my yeast adventure. “

After attending a food in space conference in 2019, Jayakody’s interest grew and he realized that the multidisciplinary and synergistic nature of SIU research could play a major role in the plans for the NASA.

“It was obvious that we needed a multidisciplinary team to secure this highly competitive grant,” said Jayakody. “I am fortunate to collaborate with extremely creative and intelligent researchers. We are a close-knit team. We are very honored to be part of the winning teams.

Along with Jayakody, FSI Director Matt McCarroll and Center for Advanced Coal Energy Research Director Ken Anderson are also engaged as co-investigators of the µBites project. Scott D. Hamilton-Brehm, assistant professor of microbiology, and Poopalasingam Sivakumar, assistant professor of physics, and Gayan L. Aruma Baduge, associate professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Biomedical Engineering, complete the members of the SIU team, which also includes researchers from other institutions, including Rina Tannenbaum from Stony Brook University, Iwona Jasiuk from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Kaustav Majumder from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Inside to win it

Jayakody and the rest of the team will continue to work to perfect and prove the design over the next three to four years. Many issues remain to be resolved, including designing the equipment to be lightweight, simple to use, and easy to maintain and repair, as well as developing the correct strains of microbes. Several graduate students will also be involved in the work.

Jayakody hopes the team wins the overall design competition, not just for the future of space travel.

“The developed system is portable and can be adapted to produce food on Earth, where resources are limited,” he said. “And of course, certainly on Mars when we have colonies there in the future.”


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